If anyone thinks Paul Simon is one to coast on the reputation of his legendary resume, Stranger to Stranger demolishes that notion into a million pieces. This is not only Simon’s most adventurous album since Rhythm of the Saints, it is his most conceptually successful effort since Graceland. At 74, Simon is not just playing music because he still can; he is actually continuing to reinvent the way his audience listens to and appreciates sound itself.
In addition to his singular vocals and reliably melodic acoustic and electric guitar, on Strangers to Strangers, Simon more than competently handles the autoharp, baritone acoustic guitar, bass harmomica, glockenspiel, harmonium, gophichand, celeste, and even the chromoelodeon (that light house siren producing machine invented by musical genius Harry Partch). To say that he is pushing the boundaries of international music is an understatement. No one else out there on the scene today is mixing polyrhythmic samba beats with trance beats and country western swing. I mean really, what other artist has thought to enlist the services of Italian electronic dance artist Clap ! Clap! to produce sounds that encompass and underscore the ancient melodies of Bengali strings and Gil Goldstein piano scales- and to do it while singing lullabies and pop ballads about metaphorical werewolves, negro league baseball heroes, street hustlers and insomniacs. Only Simon.
The album begins with the inventive “Wearwolf,” which has a slowed down tempo of Peruvian percussion and enough sound effects to make even the church music and hand clapping seem overdubbed. With a full moon craziness that is only embellished by that most primitive of Indian string instruments the gopichand, it has a twang which lends the track a laid back frenzy that is both paradoxical and fun. “Life is a lottery, most people lose” is as cheerful as Simon wants to be, as he glibly warns, “Ignorance and arrogance / it’s a national debate” and now, “The wearwolf is coming/ he is prowling and howling on the hill.” There is an impending breakdown of civilization in this track. The rich “eat all the nuggets/ and they order extra fries,” sings Simon, as the pipe organ at the end manufactures a B horror flick atmosphere, while managing to remain evocative and serious at the same time.
The rollicking, pulsating, hoedown of percussion and clapping that is “Wristband,” works to showcase Simon’s limitless playfulness as a curator of rhythms. After stepping outside the “backstage door to greet some nicotine,” not even beat boxing is out of his wheelhouse. This track has a Harry Nilsson vibe to it, which is propelled forward by a robust sax, hand shakers and hand claps, electric blues guitar, and Simon’s insatiable lyrics. Cut with a Memphis edge, the conga drums and tambourine on this track remind Simon fans why The Song of the Capeman was such a triumph. But here the moral contest is less ambiguous. It’s all about entrance and access; it’s about who has a voice and who is silenced. ” If you don’t have a wristband you don’t get in the door.” In this David vs. Goliath tale, Simon is metaphorically referring to everything from political dictatorships to corporate tycoons- and they all better look out. Music is his slingshot and no wristband is going to change the fact that the underdogs have power if they refuse to get pushed around. “Wrist band?/ I don’t need no wristband/ My band is on the bandstand/ my ax is on the ax stand.”
“The Clock” is an interlude to give the other songs ample room to breath. Dark Side of the Moon always comes to mind when I hear clocks on a rock album, but Simon is actually playing them!
“Street Angel” is where the genius of Clap! Clap! is emphasized most dramatically. It has a whimsical, bebop riff that is accelerated by a rush of energized drums, synthesizers and even cloud chamber bells. Discovered in a radiation lab at Berkeley, these “bells”are glass plates crafted into some of the most precious instruments in the world. Although they can achieve a wonderfully alive tone, they are also susceptible to losing their tone instantly and creating a dead silence. (Another masterly invention by the brilliant Harry Partch, try imagining carillon bells as if they were engineered out of atomic elements and played in the jungles of Peru by hallucinating shamans.)
Always the poet, the title track is one of Simon’s most hauntingly beautiful songs ever penned. When he croons that, “I can not be held accountable for the things I say and do/ I’m jittery/ it’s just the way of dealing with my joy,” the serene and poignant horns dance salaciously with the keyboards and organs. It is a song that should be played in a dark Barcelona cafe, under triangular orbs of green skylight with a bottle of good sherry. Simon ruminates about, “words and melodies that can tear your heart apart,” before he confesses, “Most of the time it’s just hard working the same piece of clay/ day after day / year after year.” More of a lamentation than a serenade, he is singing about lost opportunities, the routine carnage of our lives, and the failure to really see each other as more than strangers.
African analogue instrumentation is felt all over the Congolese strutting “In a Parade.” Incorporating Digi G’alessio’s digitals and more from musical theorist Partch, the zoomoozophone adds chromatic shades to the beats in surprising ways. It is a piece which feels like a cell phone call on amphetamines while catching up with the second line at a jazz funeral in New Orleans.
“Proof of Love” may be the most technically produced track on this album, which is a very good thing when you are collaborating with Roy Halee. For his 13th studio album, Simon called on his 81 year old friend- and record producing icon- to infuse these tracks with his uncanny flair for blithe chamber echo. This track in particular refers to the original sonic textures and funky grooves of Simon and Garfunkel (which Halee produced in 1964) but brings in so many unique layers of experimental pitches that it makes Simon’s early work seem lethargic and unfilled in comparison. The pipes, flutes, string guitars, drums, bells, and hand clapping, all mix together to concoct something perennially hip and ozzing with exuberant gratitude.
“In the Garden of Edie” is another interlude that also serves as a romantic overture to his wife Edie Brickell. Look out for the lovely and warm autoharp on this one.
“The Riverbank” has a verbal tempo unlike anything else on this record. Tom Moon of NPR Music rightly observed: “You can’t read the lyrics to these songs and expect to “get” them; you have to surrender to the slurpy backward vocals, the sharp crack of drumsticks, the whole experience.” On this track, Simon’s voice comes across as well trodden yet totally uncharted.
If any track will transport listeners back to Simon’s landmark album Graceland, it’s the shoulder rotating, feet shuffling, chest thumping, “Cool Papa Bell.” This song has an inimitable South African beat that must be felt in order to be heard. When Simon declares, “I don’t worry/ I don’t think/ it’s not my job to worry or think,” you know that this verse has a thousand different meanings but just one point of view. It is wild and fun and full of joyful acceptance. Jazz tubist Marcus Rojas is excellent here.
The concluding track has a dusty attic feel to it. The autoharp, the tes, and Haylee’s tinkering, work to add a drunken, waltzing quality to an arrangement that is slightly nostalgic but tonally more interesting than 90% of the material ranking on Billboard today. A solid way to finish an immensely fascinating journey.
This is Simon at his most spiritually restless and musically confident. Fortunately for the rest of us that means we get to hear lyrics and notes that no one else will be able to make again.