Phew…. Just the very idea that an artist of Paul Simon‘s era and, yeah, age (74) can still make an album as progressive, visionary and at the same time enjoyably listenable as Stranger To Stranger is near mind-blowing enough. What’s to be found and – let me tell you – savored in the tracks of Simon’s 13th solo album is even more stunning.
And fun. If you at all relate to the bottom end of things musical and have a taste for polyrhythmic possibilities, this 11-song strong disc (note the word choice: strong) is like a neon-lit carnival midway of rides that utterly surprise and delight. Plus, in case you haven’t noticed, Simon is a slyly witty guy, ever more so over time.
The boings of a mbira (thumb piano) key that opens the disc signals that we’re not just in for an album of songs but a genuine listening experience. This album’s got as many legs to induce repeat plays as a centipede, and could easily carry the title of a previous Simon release – Surprise (his 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno, which lived up to its name). But in this case with an exclamation point. Never a dull aural moment here, lemme tell ya.
Unlike so many other folk-rooted singer-songwriters, Simon has eschewed following that form back to its Appalachian and British Isles origins. Or trying to top his own songwriting when he’s already written – just to mention one – a song as emotionally and note-perfect as “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Throughout his solo career – from the very first moment in fact, the irresistible bluebeat reggae bounce of “Mother and Child Reunion” – Simon has been rooting out the beats within the beats, the notes and harmonies inside and around the notes. Deconstructing and reimagining the popular song structure. And, let’s face it, doing one splendid job, even when the results are mixed.
Little of that is found on Stranger to Stranger. Okay, you won’t quite get rather straightforward pop hookiness, a la “You Can Call Me Al,” “Graceland” or “The Obvious Child.” But the grooves and their delivery on “The Werewolf” (with its wry state of modern life review), the bopping “Wristband,” “Street Angel” (a modernist revisit to that New York City schoolyard with Julio), “In A Parade” (which impels you to feel like you are) and “Cool Papa Bell” (not about the lightning quick Negro League baseball legend, and the track closest to Graceland‘s charms) lure you into these wondrous worlds in song. The appeal is the beat, similar to the best hip-hop. (And Italian electro-beat dance artist Clap! Clap! takes MVP honors here.) But then….
As you listen, what seems like countless little cool moves, touches and lines pop out each time to tickle one’s fancy, poke the funnybone, pique the imagination, prod the spirit…. We’re talking lusciously rich pieces of music here, people. Even when it’s something as simple as the the 1:48 bare-bones instrumental “In the Garden of Edie,” on which you can feel Paul’s love for his wife. True to its Chuck Close album cover, this is dot-matrix pastel music in which small sterling bits merge to reveal larger moving and revelatory art.
Add to the above the tidal pull of the title track, the prayerfully mesmeric “Proof of Love,” the naturalistic R&B of “The Riverbank” and, finally, the microtonal folk splendor of “The Insomniac’s Lullaby,” and what you have is – and I do not use such words often nor lightly – a modern masterpiece. “An artist’s past is an obstacle that has to be overcome with each new work,” Simon says in the bio that accompanies Stranger To Stranger. He succeeds brilliantly on that count this time out.
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