Stranger to Stranger
In an almost perfectly managed career – always leave them wanting (at least) one more record – Paul Simon’s solo discography has never over-promised and rarely has it under-delivered. A five-year gap between albums the norm across the last 30 years, creating time to reinvent, to hunt and gather and fossick as song-collector and crafter. Besides, to “come back” as such, you have to first have gone away…
Those familiar themes – age and stage, loneliness and human beings of different statuses connecting, getting by, working – are all here in that familiar, conversational way; Paul Simon lyrics feel like overheard conversations, and arrive as if whispered directly into your ear. His voice, so distinctive, means if you think you’ve heard these songs before you haven’t but you’ve quite likely heard something like it, and if so it was only ever from the pen of Paul Simon.
There’s a lot of fun in this record too – a theme of the album is sound itself; the African guitars and flamenco rhythms have been used before but he finds new ways to place these appropriations; a lifelong love affair with the music of the 50s is (still) present, prevalent in fact. Most notably on early single, Wristband, where Paul Simon’s song-character gets banned from his own gig for not wearing the titular requirement. In the way that Paul Simon songs are almost always metaphorical, or at least meta, and therefore hardly ever about only one thing, Wristband morphs into a discussion around race and class as the rock star who doesn’t need a wristband because “My axe is on the bandstand, my band is on the floor” gives way to a line about “The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly” as “the heartland towns [that] never get a wristband” – they too, you see “can’t get through the door”. Simon has always played with language, and when he does – and when it works best – it’s usually alongside some play with/in and around the music. His is a poetry of sound. And one that works best with other sounds alongside to coax and crash, to guide and gnash.
Stranger to Stranger features plenty of these ‘plays’ and plays-within-and-around-plays, as on Street Angel where Simon quotes the character from the streets at length, his proverb that sticks – “It’s God goes fishing/And we are the fishes/He baits his lines/With prayers and wishes/They sparkle in the shallows/And catch the falling light/We hide our hearts like holy hostages/While hungry for the love, and so we bite” isn’t, itself, profound. But it has a bounce and spark, it’s light and it pops. And it works because it’s tied to an insatiable rhythm. That’s the joy with(in) Paul Simon’s best songwriting. The marriage of words and music is a perfect union because the celebration is wholly about the fact that each vestige is bringing something different to the table making a meal to be savoured.
Stranger to Stranger is also introspective, as we’ve come to expect. Its title track rides on one of those mellifluous guitar lines as Simon ponders “words and melody” and “easy harmony” and how this has become the way of dealing with his joy, music being “the tongue I speak” – a mournful trumpet wafts by to juxtapose him singing of joy; it’s not in any way a repeat of the saxophone solo in Still Crazy After All These Years but you could image these songs as ships in the night, waving across the sea, a parp from their respective horns in acknowledgment.
And that’s the joy fans feel from listening – still – to a Paul Simon record. This one, his 13th, brims with ideas, including many we think we’ve heard before but realise it’s always a wee spin, a wee twist, a slight development. The hip-hop/fiesta bounce of In A Parade is propulsive in a way that Love and Blessings’ mariachi-shuffle was, the intricate weave of guitars to drive Proof of Love touches on many of the songs from Rhythm of the Saints. The whiplash-blues riff of The Riverbank sets it up as musical palinode to the title track from his previous album, the Latin glide of Cool Papa Bell, laced with that lovely African guitar of the great Vincent Nguini, could have been included on 1997’s Songs From the Capeman and it wouldn’t – at all – have been out of place. But, dressed up and paraded in public here for the first time they’re also brand new; Paul Simon’s greatest trick is that he does what he’s always done and it always sounds like a new idea.
When we get to the Harry Partch-inspired closer, Insomniac’s Lullaby, it’s the most overtly 70s-Paul Simon referencing song that he’s made since, well, the 1970s. And there’s already been the tinkering of brief instrumental, The Clock, earlier in the album, that offers a wee glimpse…that musical thread then picked up as the album ends.
It’s one of his strongest efforts – and as with the previous record it feels as much like a set of short-stories that just happen to have been shaped into songs. This is where Paul Simon has been heading ever since 2000’s You’re The One, certainly since 2006’s Surprise which, with its production by Brian Eno made the clear announcement that ‘sound’ was a character of the record and within the songs. Thoughtful and wise, interesting without every trying to be too clever, new sounds, found sounds, recycled sounds, little forays into sampling and always the idea that he’s whispered something profound that couldn’t stand up alone on the page, that has to exist in this space, Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger is not just the work of one of the world’s greatest songwriters, it’s one of his greatest works.