Song of the Day #635: ‘Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean’ – Paul Simon

Following You’re the One, Paul Simon took a break from recording almost as long as the one after The Rhythm of the Saints. Finally, in 2006, he released Surprise.

The album lived up to its name. Produced by Brian Eno, it marked Simon’s first foray into electronica. Now, I’m not saying Paul Simon put out a club album, but it’s a far cry from the organic rhythms of his world music crossover albums. I haven’t warmed to this album the way I have to Simon’s others, maybe because of that stylistic shift.

As is so often the case, revisiting this album after a long time reveals that it’s actually very good. But at the same time, I wonder how long it will be before I feel the urge to revisit it yet again. Sometimes music can meet all the criteria of what you consider quality but still not cry out to be heard.

One major exception is the album’s closing track, ‘Father and Daughter,’ which Simon originally wrote for the soundtrack to The Wild Thornberrys Movie. That’s a beautifully sweet track with this heart-melting chorus:

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
That loved his daughter more than I love you

I consider that one of the best songs Simon has ever written, though admittedly having my own daughters is probably a big part of that.

I didn’t pick ‘Father and Daughter’ as today’s SOTD, however, because it wasn’t written for Surprise and I want to give a better sense of what the album is all about.

‘Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean’ does that, I think. It starts out sounding not unlike something from Hearts and Bones but around the 40-second mark you start to hear the Brian Eno influence.

Once upon a time there was an ocean.
But now it’s a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

It’s a dead end job, and you get tired of sittin’.
And it’s like a nicotine habit you’re always thinking about quittin’.
I think about quittin’ every day of the week.
When I look out my window it’s brown and it’s bleak.

Outta here.
How am I gonna get outta here?
I’m thinking outta here.
When am I gonna get outta here?

And when will I cash in my lottery ticket, and bury my past with my burdens and strife?
I want to shake every limb in the garden of Eden, and make every lover the love of my life.

I figure that once upon a time I was an ocean.
But now I’m a mountain range.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

Found a room in the heart of the city, down by the bridge.
Hot plate and TV and beer in the fridge.
But I’m easy, I’m open-that’s my gift.
I can flow with the traffic, I can drift with the drift.

Home again? Naw, never going home again.
Think about home again?
I never think about home.

But then comes a letter from home, the handwriting’s fragile and strange.
Something unstoppable set into motion.
Nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

The light through the stained glass was cobalt and red.
And the frayed cuffs and collars were mended by haloes of golden thread.
The choir sang, “Once Upon A Time There Was An Ocean.”
And all the old hymns and family names came fluttering down as leaves of emotion.
As nothing is different, but everything’s changed.

3 thoughts on “Song of the Day #635: ‘Once Upon a Time There Was an Ocean’ – Paul Simon

  1. Amy says:

    I had no idea this album even existed. I always assumed he wrote Father and Daughter, which appeared on the soundtrack, and that was that. So “SURPRISE” is certainly an appropriate title for me; it’s hard to imagine admiring another artist as much as I do Simon but not knowing he had even released an album.

    Still, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. This fits the pattern I confess to over and over on this blog. I have two treasured albums from this man, neither of which I play as much as I should; why should I be greedy and want or expect more? (reminds me of a great line from a Penn Jillette “This I Believe” essay; if you’ve never read it, you really should! – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5015557)

    Still, I kept waiting for this song to become something I wouldn’t like, and it never happened. However Eno exercised his influence, it wasn’t by causing Simon to abandon his style. I agree with you that I’d likely not reach for this as often as I would another of his albums, but I also can appreciate how he wants to continue to grow and experiment as an artist. Hell, I never pick of The Juliet Letters, but I don’t think Costello was misguided when he made it.

    Anyway, thanks for the pleasant surprise.

  2. Dana says:

    It’s sad that Amy and I don’t know this album better, particularly since we own it. I think we definitely should give it a (better) listen. This song doesn’t necessarily grab me in the way something from Graceland or Saints did, but it’s still quite good.

    Oh, and I’m not sure “Father and Daughter” is really amongst Simon’s greatest songs, but, as a father watching his daughter grow, the sentiment really hits home.

  3. pegclifton says:

    As you know I love the Father and Daughter song, I believe this CD was a birthday or Mother’s Day gift from you. I think it’s time to play it again since I haven’t listened to it for awhile.

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