Paul Simon, ‘Stranger to Stranger': Album Review
Paul Simon records, dating back to the final ones he made with Simon & Garfunkel, have always been as much about the songs as the way those songs sound. His best albums – Bookends, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Graceland – reveal new layers of musical depth with each listen, uncovering sonic textures easily buried beneath the gorgeous melodies.
On his 13th solo album, Stranger to Stranger, Simon is again paired with Roy Halee – a longtime collaborator who worked on the celebrated Bridge Over Troubled Water, 1990’s underrated The Rhythm of the Saints and many other Simon LPs over the years. Here, he helps Simon create another patterned work that drifts through an aural landscape filled with surprises hidden in the corners. Those melodies don’t come as quickly or as effortlessly as they used to, but the line to the past is always a clear one here.
All these forces come together to form Simon’s best album since The Rhythm of the Saints, Stranger to Stranger‘s closest spiritual and musical ancestor. Simon sings with a joy that’s mostly been missing on more recent somber works like 2000’s You’re the One and 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, and the songs themselves sparkle with late-career grace and wit.
On cuts like “The Werewolf,” “Wristband” and “Cool Papa Bell,” Simon plays around with words, weaving them in and out of the multi-textured and worldly music. Like The Rhythm of the Saints (and Graceland to an extent), Stranger to Stranger is predominantly percussion based. Opener “The Werewolf” and the twisty “Riverbank” lock into particularly spunky grooves that prove the 74-year-old Simon won’t settle into either expectations or nostalgia that readily. This is exciting music made by one of the 20th (and now 21st) century’s most endlessly restless artists.
The montage of sounds he constructs here – traditional brass and string instruments mingle with electronic ones throughout – are often more adventurous and exhilarating than anything most EDM and modern music artists are making these days. Smarter, too. Simon was hugely influenced by the works of Harry Partch, a composer who experimented with microtonal tunings. That may not mean much to the average listener, but those bold expeditions give Stranger to Stranger its edgy drive.
There are a few stumbles. The two-minute acoustic-guitar instrumental “In the Garden of Edie” (written for Simon’s wife and one of two pieces originally written for a limited-run play in early 2016) and the closing ballad “Insomniac’s Lullaby” sound out of place on such a risk-taking album. But elsewhere Simon and Halee twiddle the knobs and fuse old- and new-school techniques in ways that 2006’s Brian Eno-assisted Surprise couldn’t quite untangle.
“Every day I’m here, I’m grateful / And that’s the gist of it / Now you may call that a bogus, bulls—, New Age point-of-view,” Simon sings on “Cool Papa Bell,” one of the most rhythmically inviting tracks he and Halee have ever put together. The song is about a baseball player in the Negro Leagues from back in the day, but Simon could just as well be singing about himself. As the track skitters into a digitally altered finale, Simon sings, “You’re never gonna stop him.” If he keeps making records like Stranger to Stranger, that sounds just about right.
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