Paul Simon spent the past five years painstakingly crafting his new album Stranger to Stranger (out June 3rd), knowing he'd have to create something extraordinary if he wanted it to stand up to the best work from his past. "There are a lot of preconceptions [about my new work] because I have been familiar to the public for 50 years," he says. "They go, 'Is it going to be Graceland? Is it going to be 'Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard?' Simon and Garfunkel? The Capeman?' To get people to listen with open ears, you have to really make something that is interesting because people are prepared for it not to be interesting."
The end result is Stranger to Stranger, an experimental album heavy on echo and rhythm that fuses electronic beats with African woodwind instruments, Peruvian drums, a gospel music quartet, horns and synthesizers. "I don't set out to make each album different than the last one," he says. "It's just my natural inclination."
Italian electronic dance music artist Clap! Clap! provides beats on the tracks "The Werewolf," "Street Angel" and "Wristband," the latter of which is now streaming. They met up in in 2015 when Simon's world tour touched down in Milan, Italy. "My 23-year-old son Adrian is a composer and he told me about him," says Simon. "He takes African sound samples and puts digital dance grooves behind it. His newest album is a masterpiece. He makes music sound new and old at the same time."
Most of the album was recorded at Simon's home studio in Connecticut, with Clap! Clap! and Simon communicating via e-mail. But in 2013, the sessions briefly moved to Montclair State University where unique, custom-made instruments, such as the Cloud-Chamber Bowls and the Chromelodeon, created by the mid-20 century music theorist Harry Partch, are stored. "Parch said there were 43 tones to an octave and not 12," says Simon. "He had a totally different approach to what music is and had to build his own instruments so he could compose on a microtonal scale. That microtonal thinking pervades this album."
The subject matter of the songs ranges from the ridiculous to the tragic. "Wristband" tells the hysterical tale of a rock star prevented from entering his own concert because he doesn't have the proper wristband. "It's not a true story," says Simon. "But I know plenty of people with this story and there have been times where I've been stopped backstage and asked to see a pass." "The Riverbank" was inspired by a visit to wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and the funeral of a teacher Simon knew that was murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. On a brighter note, "In The Garden of Edie" is a tribute to his wife Edie Brickell.
Opening track "The Werewolf" got its title when Simon and his band blended the sound of the Peruvian percussion instrument Cajón with hand claps and the one-string Indian instrument gopichand. When he slowed the tempo way down, it sounded like someone was saying "the werewolf." Simon turned that into a song about a mythical werewolf as an angel of death coming to eventually kill us all. "The fact is most obits are mixed reviews," he sings. "Life is a lottery/A lot of people lose."
For the first time in his career, Simon introduces characters in songs that appear on different tracks later on the album. For example, the central charter from "Street Angel" pops up again in "In A Parade." "The idea of finishing one song and having the character appear in another song appeals to me," he says. "I don't see why characters shouldn't appear more than once."
Two instrumental guitar tracks, "The Clock" and "In The Garden of Edie," were originally written for John Patrick Shanley's play Prodigal Son, which ran at New York's City Center last year. "I decided to insert them in the album just to give a little space after songs," says Simon. "It lets the mind stop hearing words for a while."
The album is co-produced by 81-year-old Roy Halee, whose working relationship with Simon goes back to the original Simon and Garfunkel demos in 1964. They went on to collaborate on all five Simon and Garfunkel albums along with Simon's self-titled solo debut, Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. "He retired, but I always liked working with him more than anyone else," says Simon. "He has great ears. He didn't know anything about ProTools, so our engineer Andy Smith helped with that. But nothing compares with his knowledge of how to create echo."
Simon has no plans beyond his summer tour in support of Stranger to Stranger, though he does hope to revisit a duets album he began with Brickell a few years ago. "We're empty-nesters for the first time so we like to fantasize about where we'll travel," he says, "I do think about retirement. I want to see if I'll get bored and what will happen with the bit of unborn creative impulses if I stop writing songs, which I've been doing since I was 12. But I just don't know. Philip Glass is one of my role models and he just keeps going. He said to me, 'If you don't do it, who will write a Paul Simon song?'"
Stranger to Stranger Track List
1. "The Werewolf"
3. "The Clock"
4. "Street Angel"
5. "Stranger To Stranger"
6. "In A Parade"
7. "Proof Of Love"
8. "In the Garden Of Edie"
9. "The Riverbank"
10. "Cool Papa Bell"
11. "Insomniac’s Lullaby"