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. “I think, yeah/ The word is ugly, all the same/ Ugly got a case to make,” he sings, pretty as a motherfucker.
That’s not even the funniest bit on Stranger to Stranger, a record that draws together nearly all of the man’s accrued vernacular with seeming effortlessness: the gentle folk of Simon and Garfunkel; the gospel flavor of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon; the percolating Afropop of Graceland; the samba fireworks from The Rhythm of the Saints; the vintage-sample flip ping of 2011’s So Beautiful or So What. His latest continues in the same vein; it’s as inviting, immaculately produced, jokey and unsettled a record as any he has ever made. His sophisticated feel for rhythm – always his secret weapon, even as a folkie – is in full force here, with beats by Italian Afrophile electronic musician Cristiano Crisci (a.k.a. Clap! Clap!) and his own varied, subtle vocal phrasing.
Stranger to Stranger’s comic high point comes straight out of the gate on “The Werewolf,” a tall tale about a middling Midwesterner whose wife kills him with a sushi knife, then shops for heavenly, or perhaps purgatorial, real estate. “Most obits are mixed reviews,” Simon notes. “Wristband” is similar, whimsical storytelling jumpcutting into something darker. It begins with an amusing enactment of a musician locked out of his own show. Suddenly, the title becomes a metaphor for class war: “The riots started slowly,” Simon sings soberly, “with the homeless and the lowly.” There’s no cheap resolution between the two elements; they just sit there, cognitive dissonance over boogaloo brass and a funky acoustic bass line.
As on most of his recordings, Simon explores new musical territory alongside the familiar. Besides Clap! Clap!’s earthy grooves, he draws on the sounds of iconoclastic avant-garde composer Harry Partch. On the final track, “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” cloud-chamber bowls, chromelodeon, zoomoozophone and bowed marimba pullulate like cosmic carpenter ants beneath Simon’s acoustic guitar and voice, as he sings of lying alone in bed with his fears. “We’ll eventually all fall asleep,” Simon concludes – true, of course, in both the immediate and existential sense. It’s a grace-note glimpse of the infinite, from a man who seems in no rush to get there.