Review Summary: His best since Graceland
Paul 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. Here, he presses vigorously against any walls that might act as an enclosure upon his creativity, injecting Stranger to Stranger
with cultural influences from around the world while never really losing that distinct folk
flavor that has always defined him as an artist. Ranging from the upbeat, flamenco percussion present on ‘Werewolf’ to the acoustically pristine, confessional-styled ‘Insomniac’s Dream’, this is a record that sees Paul Simon at his absolute best – balancing his personal life with both entertaining whimsy and serious political undertones.
Considering the vast range of sounds that Stranger to Stanger
possesses within its scope, it’s a little surprising to discover that the record actually began with a serious case of writer’s block. According to Simon, the album commenced “in a season of emotional winter: barren landscape, no ideas, anxiety about no ideas, lethargy leading to increased caffeine consumption – in short, a not-atypical basket of writer’s feelings, when the urge to create is stirring, but nothing comes of it.” All musicians have been there at some point, and the results are rarely middling – they either spur an influx of new ideas, or force a retreat to something that was effective in the past. Luckily, Simon encountered inspiration as opposed to stagnation, citing the guitar line of the album’s closer as a key catalyst for researching and subsequently delving into microtonal music. Everything from his fascination with Harry Partch’s discovery of forty three tones in an octave (as opposed to the standard twelve on the European musical scale) to employing a group of Spanish Flemenco musicians to record several of the grooves that we hear on the album all illustrate his willingness to reach beyond what is comfortable, familiar, and easy. Stranger to Stranger
is a title aptly reflected in the music; this is a record of Paul Simon extending his reach, engaging others, and putting the results on paper as well as on an album that just happens to be his most accomplished piece since Graceland
Much like that celebrated work, Stranger
feels like it comprises a world of its own. For as eclectic as its influences are, there is nary a disjointed moment or a feeling of disconnect between themes. There’s a celebratory feel to the entire experience, stemming chiefly from the hand claps and pitter-patter percussion that places you squarely in the center of a traditional Spanish dance floor. Such zest is uncommon for what is, at its core, a slow-tempo folk album. ‘Werewolf’, ‘In a Parade’, and ‘Wristband’ show off this style more than the other tracks, but the theme is never totally absent – persisting as a motif even when it’s forced to take a backseat. The more traditional Simon & Garfunkel
-styled pieces shine through the cracks like glowing embers of past memories, exuding confident acoustic strides alongside Simon’s angelic vocals. They form some of the most haunting tracks of his already legendary career, as ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’ and the title track undoubtedly fall within this category. There’s a whole array of lyrical topics covered here, not all of them cheery, but Stranger to Stranger
never loses its sense of warmth or optimism - a direct testament to the beautifully varied instrumental groundwork laid out by Simon and his production team.
Paul Simon has always been a poet, and Stranger
is no different as just about the entire lyrical set reads like a philosophical thesis. Simon tackles religion alongside love and politics as if he were experts in them all, and sometimes the realizations are profound. ‘Street Angel’, for instance, sees him compare faith to an evening out on the lake: “God goes fishing, and we are the fishes / He baits his lines with prayers and wishes / They sparkle in the shallows, they catch the falling light / We hide our hearts like holy hostages / We’re hungry for the love, and so we bite.” It feels like an epiphany regarding our human need for love and for answers, and suggests that we will basically “take the bait” on anything that satisfies that fundamental craving. Stranger to Stranger
is a deftly political album too, although you wouldn’t know it immediately because the references he makes and the conclusions he draws are far more subtle and smart than what we’ve been given in the majority of recent mainstream offerings. In other words, it’s not your typical Hillary versus Trump
or man against ‘the machine’
- it’s more about the kind of politics that matter, such as poverty, violence, and greed. Sometimes the offerings are deeply moving, such as ‘The Riverbank’, which was inspired by his own emotional experience of playing at the funeral of one of the teachers who died during the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre (“High school is closed, same for the local police / Shall we tearfully embrace, shall we sing ‘Amazing Grace’ / Will the shallow river waters bring us peace"”); and other times they are more quirky, pointing out that “Life is a lottery a lot of people lose / And the winners, the grinners with money-colored eyes / Eat all the nuggets, then they order extra fries” on ‘The Werewolf.’ Perhaps the most amusing and simultaneously triumphant lyrical excerpts can be found on ‘Wristband’, in which Simon tells a personal anecdote about a bouncer who wouldn’t let him inside a venue to play with his own band – “He’s acting like St. Peter standing guard at the pearly, ‘wristband my man…if you don’t have a wristband you don’t get through the door” – to which Simon replies “Wristband" I don’t need a wristband – my axe is on the bandstand, my band is on the floor.” He then uses that experience to draw a parallel to two different classes of society – those who have wristbands, and those who don’t. Images of an uprising ensue: “The riots started slowly, with the homeless and the lowly / Then they spread into the heartland, towns that never get a wristband / Kids that can’t afford the cool brand, whose anger is shorthand for you’ll never get a wristband
.” It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if Paul Simon could turn anything
into a meaningful statement – although the absurdity of some of his analogies don’t make the messages he’s portraying any less important or compelling. That’s what’s so magical about it: on Stranger
, Simon is able to take everyday occurrences and pen them in the form of parables.
Stranger to Stranger
serves as proof that age has little to do with relevance in the world of music. Simon’s thirteenth studio album is as fresh and relevant as anything currently being mass-consumed by the market, and the things it forces you to think about are far more important than most of the topics that are being fed to us by the industry. Paul Simon is truly a statesman for indie-rock and folk, and he has continued to use his platform as one of the genre’s most important figures of all time to continue reshaping and progressing music as we know it. That might feel like a bit of a hyperbolic claim when applied to just Stranger
itself, but it is in no way an exaggeration when you examine milestones reached across his vast and storied career. Ultimately this is just another chapter, another milestone, in that amazing story – one that Stranger to Stranger
proves is still getting better with time.