This song moves backward and forward in time. It is about the inevitability of regret, which itself is an aspect of memory, of looking backward through time. Since we can't actually go back in time, all we can do is promise to try to not make that mistake again in the future.
But we will make some mistakes, either that one again or a brand new one. And so we know now that we will, in the future, regret some of what we do now. Regret is inevitable.
The song starts, however, with another of Simon's musings about the difficulties of songwriting. As early as "Kathy's Song," he spoke of "words that tear and strain to rhyme." Here, we see the problem complicated further by the additional dimension of music: "Locked in a struggle for the right combination/ Of words in a melody line."
But, once we have heard the song once through, this is not about songwriting at all, but living. The melody is time-- once defined, it proceeds along in its pattern. What changes, what the artist is more in control of, is the wording. The "melody line" is set; what he is looking for is the "right combination/ of words" for it.
The song is mostly set, if it has a place, in Simon's own head, "[his] imagination." Specifically, along the riverbank," a combination of land and water, like solid words and flowing melody. He also imagines combinations in the sky, with "golden clouds" intermingling with "sunshine." As he is "locked in a struggle" of words versus music, maybe he imagines the ease with which land and water, sun and cloud, simply get along, and wonders if he can do the same with word and music.
Then comes the first mention of (imagined) time travel, married with regret: "If I ever get back to the 20th Century... With its catalog of regrets." He knows there were things that should not have been done but were, and vice versa. His plan, should this occur?
Repentance. It is too late to ask forgiveness, evidently, from some of the people he wronged. So, he says, he will have to "think about God/ And wait for the hour of my rescue."
But what about the future? It will be much the same, inevitably: "We don't mean to mess things up, but mess them up we do."
And then there is an image of younger lovers at at birthday party. "Make a wish and close your eyes/ Surprise." This is, of course, the source of the title of the entire album.
But what is the "surprise"? Well, everything! The next second is, in fact, entirely unpredictable. There could be an earthquake or a phone call or a car crash or a new baby (like the one on the album cover) that was complete unexpected, but changes everything. So "make a wish," and plan, but don't expect it to come true in the way you though it might or should. Every next moment, there could be a "peek-a-boo."
If the opening of the song was about the struggle to assert control over one's life, by now that idea has been somewhat abandoned as, at least, impractical, and at most, foolhardy.
Nevertheless, life must be lived, and so Simon continues to write. Even though he knows he has lived most of his life already-- "Early December... Frost creeping over the pond"-- he continues to create: "I shoot a thought into the future... through my lifetime and beyond."
(But who or what is "brown as a sparrow"? Grammatically, it refers to the speaker: "Brown as a sparrow... I shoot..." I am not sure why he would be "brown," especially in the winter. It may refer to the other meaning of "brown," as in "in a brown study." Or it may refer to the "frost," which is usually thought of as white, but when still thin and clear, would be the color of the muddy water of the pond it covers. Overall, the verse recalls "Hazy Shade of Winter" in its imagery.)
Earlier, Simon imagines going back in time. Now, he imagines going further forward than his own death, to his reincarnation. "Resurrection" means "coming back alive as yourself," while here he means "reincarnation," coming back as, he shrugs, "a tree or a crow/ or.... dust."
In "That's Where I Belong," Simon says he belongs "on a dirt road." Here, he says if comes back, you can "find [him] on the ancient road." Where will he be? "In the song, when the wires are hushed." We assume he means the electrical and telephone wires along the road. Such wires hum, but Simon says that noise would block the sound of the song that would otherwise be audible-- the sound of nature, the sound of, well, lack of wires. Interesting that he feels that this is where his self-song lies, given that this album is is exploration of electronic sounds! But we know that Simon's true love is acoustic music; maybe he is reassuring us, and himself, of that fact.
"Hurry on and remember me," Simon urges. Don't wait for him, just move forward and claim your own future (Is this line to his children? His audience?). He will "remember you," too, as you leave him behind. But is it more important to go forward than to go together.
Now, Simon returns briefly to the "golden clouds" of the earlier verse... only to rush upward, "above" them to outer space. This place was once though empty but now, we know, it pulsates with dark energy and other radiation: "the darkness vibrates." And what does every astronaut see? "The Earth is blue."
The poet Archibald MacLeish, seeing photographs of Earth from space, remarked that our home is "whole and round and beautiful and small." Simon sees things musically, and says, "Everything about it is a love song."
This song starts off about the "struggle" of words and music, then continues about the struggle between life and our attempts to shape it. Almost immediately, Simon realizes that Nature has no such struggle. Nature doesn't worry about the words fitting the music. It just... sings. And by the end, Simon knows that this is where the music is. It's in the hush of the man-made, binding wires. It's in everything that is there without us having put it there.
But what about regret? Well, how can there be any, when everything was always... a surprise?
On electric guitar is experimental jazz-guitar master Bill Frisell. His music integrates everything from folk and country to classical and world sounds. He is a virtuoso at finding new sounds in his instrument, wielding technology with a craftsman's touch.
Next Song: Outrageous