Release Date: Jun 3, 2016
Record label: Concord
“It’s hard working the same piece of clay, day after day, year after year,” sings Paul Simon on the title track of Stranger to Stranger, his first album since So Beautiful Or So What in 2011. But his tenacious pursuit of new sounds, such as the unique microtonal instruments of composer Harry Partch on Insomniac’s Lullaby, and juxtapositions such as the gnarled blues guitar (played by Simon) and cello on The Riverbank, make this album as rewarding as anything he’s done. The creaky slide guitars, distant train whistles and street-corner harmony groups on songs such as Wristband and The Clock hark back to the records of the 1940s and 50s.
Review Summary: His best since GracelandPaul Simon is one of folk’s greatest icons. Although he may still be best known for his work in the 1960s with Art Garfunkel, his influence has spread so much farther and wider than that comparatively short-lived act, becoming a master of invention when it comes to his craft. Stranger to Stranger marks Simon’s thirteenth solo album, and even at seventy four years old, it seems that he has only gotten more forward-thinking and progressive when it comes to his ideas.
Folk rock legend Paul Simon’s latest album Stranger To Stranger is, as expected, a master course in songwriting. However, this LP is even more notable for its sound design and production techniques. From the popped, echoing guitar string sound that opens the album on “The Werewolf,” to the unique percussion on tracks like “Wristband,” Stranger To Stranger is unlike any album by a 1960s musician you’ve ever heard.
2011’s So Beautiful Or So What was an unheralded marvel from Paul Simon. It was a poised, wise set of songs that hinged upon Simon’s gifts of observation, a wry turn of phrase and flair for subtle, unexpected melodies and nuanced song structures. Naturally, Stranger To Stranger sees him following it with something quite different. Though his songwriting chops are matched by very few in the pop world, there’s a sense that Simon – like his detractors – can sometimes be unimpressed by the talents that come most naturally, no matter how deftly deployed.
Some recurring images on Paul Simon's new LP: hospitals; insomnia; heaven and the after- life; riots and looting; a character called the Street Angel; wolves; love; God. Just some stuff in the head of a 74-year-old New Yorker, spun casually into art in that sagely, choirboy-cum-everymensch voice. Even Simon's discourse on the word "motherfucker" – on the irresistible "Cool Papa Bell" – feels nearly Talmudic.
Thirty years after Graceland ushered in a phenomenal second act for the already-revered 60s folk hero, 74-year-old Paul Simon remains a class act on the move. There is a constancy to his melodic voice but his albums probe tonal frequencies as though he were a much younger digital wunderkind. At the moment, the singer says, his focus is more on sounds than lyrics.
“Milwaukee man led a fairly decent life / Made a fairly decent living / Had a fairly decent wife / She killed him / A sushi knife / Now, they’re shopping for a fairly decent afterlife.” And welcome to Stranger to Stranger. Those lyrics are the very first things you hear escape Paul Simon’s mouth on this, his 13th studio record. They come about 14 seconds into the set’s opening track, “The Werewolf”, and if you claim to be a fan of this guy’s work on any level whatsoever, you’re immediately hooked.
"The Werewolf" opens Stranger to Stranger, Paul Simon's thirteenth solo studio album, with a heavy rhythmic thud -- bass, drums, and maracas lumbering along in a modified Bo Diddley beat not a far cry from the Who's "Slip Kid. " Simon isn't looking to the past, though: he's writing toward an inevitable sunset, mindful of mortality -- just like he was on 2011's So Beautiful or So What -- but he's firmly grounded in a tumultuous present, embracing all the cut-and-paste contradictions endemic to the digital age. With the exception of a pair of hushed acoustic numbers and the expansive title track, all positioned to provide necessary pressure relief from the density of the rest of the record, Stranger to Stranger feels built from the rhythm up, a tactic familiar to Simon since 1986's Graceland.
Paul Simon's brilliant new album Stranger to Stranger is a charming record, which takes you by surprise from the very first note played. To be surprised on an album by a septigenarian pop-folk singer/songwriter is itself unexpected. Take fellow pensioner and Beach Boys creator Brian Wilson, who - legendary though his work is - has sadly tended to re-tread the same old ground on his past few solo albums, sharing none of his 'sent from heaven' psychedelic pop charm of his golden years.
Sonic experimentalism from veteran folk-pop legend. Working with Brian Eno a decade ago seems to have liberated Paul Simon from staid singer-songwriter respectability, because his recent albums have been the most sonically and rhythmically adventurous of his 50-year career..
“The werewolf’s coming,” Paul Simon cautions at the start of his 13th solo outing, Stranger To Stranger. That’s a menacing lyric coming from a guy who, at 74, undoubtably has a first-class window seat on the pop music gravy train. He helped ease fans through the tumult of the ’60s alongside Art Garfunkel. In ’80s, he did the seemingly unthinkable by turning African rhythm and world music influences into an outside-the-box mainstream smash.
Of all the baby-boomer heroes to make it past 70, none have been old longer than Paul Simon. Raised in Queens to first-generation Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, he copyrighted his first song, “The Girl for Me,” with Art Garfunkel when he was 14, an indication both of his preternatural ambition and a belief that art is as much a business as it is a means of self-expression. He never rebelled, never played to fashion, never seemed as interested in the dangerous divinations of rock‘n’roll as in the quiet diligence of songwriters from the 1930s and ’40s, who kept short hair and bankers’ hours.
In the current musical landscape, Paul Simon’s voice is functionally irrelevant. Like most of his contemporaries, he and his (mostly pre-1990) catalogue have become the subject of study, reverence and emulation, but we no longer rely on it for running commentary or poetic counterpoint. Likely apprehending this on some level, the crosshairs of Paul Simon’s attention have shifted squarely to the eternal and the absurd.
Over his three-quarters of a century on this mortal coil, Paul Simon’s never made two great albums in a row. This isn’t a problem — his focus ebbs and flows like his music, which is often oceanic in its stirred calm and its ease at soaking up little bits from each shore. In bits is how he sounded best on albums like 1990’s clangorous The Rhythm of the Saints and 2006’s Eno-produced fun factory Surprise, from the quarter-century between 1986’s epochal Graceland and the more quietly spectacular So Beautiful or So What in 2011.
Paul Simon? But…he’s old! Yes he is. And he’s maybe the most gracefully aged person in rock music, if that means anything to ya. Actually, let’s go further: Paul Simon might be the only rock artist in history who continues to both act his age and to make music that survives comparison with the best of his youth. Heady statements, yeah.
“This album began, as mine often do, in a season of emotional winter: barren landscape, no ideas, anxiety about no ideas, lethargy leading to increased caffeine consumption,” Paul Simon writes in his liner notes for “Stranger to Stranger,” his 13th solo album and first since 2011. We should all be so lucky, or at least so effectively caffeinated: the album that resulted is Simon’s richest, most instantly appealing collection since “Graceland. ” Mentioning that album is a double-edged sword: “Graceland,” now 30 years old, was Simon’s creative summit and the apex of his solo-career popularity, but also initiated debates about casual cultural appropriation.
“Sound is the theme of this album,” Paul Simon writes in the press notes accompanying his new work, “Stranger to Stranger,” “as much as it’s about the subjects of the individual songs. If people get that, I’ll be pleased.” True to his word, the visceral sonic qualities of the 11 tracks on the collection, due Friday, are as commanding as his ever-literate lyrics and consistently inviting melodies. This is a modal window.
Paul Simon’s love affair with percussion continues on his latest album Stranger to Stranger. And so does his casual genius. It’s easy to take this man’s songwriting brilliance for granted, when it seems to drip out of him like an afterthought 50 years into the game. But album after album is just a testament to how much of Paul Simon’s breath and blood contains of stanzas and time signatures instead of carbon and iron or whatever Earth-based organisms usually consist of.
Musician Paul Simon performs live during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 29, 2016 in New Orleans. Musician Paul Simon performs live during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 29, 2016 in New Orleans. Paul Simon's a restless guy. Even after all the millions of record sales and a dozen Grammy awards, he remains a connoisseur of the exotic, a sound collector who happens to write songs.