Paul Simon’s first major label release, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM with Art Garfunkel, was released in 1964. That’s 52 years ago — a remarkable length of time to be active in popular music, but an even more remarkable length of time to be successful in popular music. In that half century plus, trends have come and gone, but the brilliance of Paul Simon has remained a faithful constant.
If you’re wondering when he might start waning, you can just stop right now, because it does not seem like it’s going to happen anytime soon. Simon’s new album Stranger to Stranger is as strong as any of the music he’s released over (again) 52 years, both in terms of diverse musicality and lyrical strength. It’s new enough to feel novel, familiar enough to feel comfortable, and brilliant enough to make you forget that you are listening to the creative work of a man who, at 74 years of age, should by all accounts be well past his prime.
Let’s answer the big question first: no, Stranger to Stranger isn’t as groundbreaking as Graceland. How could it be? Simon’s 1986 magnum opus was one of those albums that genuinely shifts the foundations of popular music and forces us to reexamine what we find audibly appealing, and albums like that don’t come around but once a decade or so. For an artist or band to have more than one album like that is virtually unheard of. How many Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bands, how many Led Zeppelin IVs, how many Exile on Main Streets and Rumours and Pet Sounds and Tapestries and Highway 61 Revisiteds and Thrillers do you get in a career?
You get one. But if you’re talented and prolific and more than a little bit lucky, you also get lots of albums that land just off the center of the bullseye, that are maybe not as overly inviting but still just as brilliant once you really sit and listen. This is where Stranger to Stranger falls on the great target of popular music, and really, it’s a good spot to be in.Variations on Experimentation
You notice right away how rhythm-dominant the songs on Stranger to Stranger are. The heavy bass is loud and upfront, and the percussion comes in waves; even the guitars sound like they’re in on the thumping action. For most artists, this sort of thing would sound experimental, but for Simon, it’s just a variation on a theme, and an award-winning one at that.
Paul Simon also knows the importance of surrounding oneself with the best musicians around. Unlike songwriters who aspire to musical jack-of-all-trades-ness, Simon recognizes that while he may not be a one trick pony, he has his strengths, and has become known for inviting others who have different strengths to collaborate with him. A rising tide, we’re always told, lifts all boats — or in this case, an elevated level of musicianship lifts the whole sound.
Standout Tracks, Not Standin Tracks
But see, Paul Simon’s no dummy. He knows we’re expecting him to start slip sliding down the off ramp of musical prowess and right into Has-Been land, and he starts playing games with us. Take “Wristband,” the first of the singles off the album, as a prime example. For the first two thirds of the song, it seems to be a clever enough but maddeningly simple rhyme about being locked out of the nightclub where he’s supposed to be playing (perhaps a nod to “Late in the Evening,” perhaps not) and having trouble getting back in because he doesn’t have a wristband. It’s OK enough, but not the level of lyrical depth that Simon usually reaches. Of course, the last verse turns it into much more, with the title object going from something he needs to get through the door to an apt metaphor about entering the upper echelons of society, and how there are small towns in the heartland that “never get a wristband,” and the anger that simmers as a result.
It’s a humbling feeling to realize that a 74 has been playing these games with your mind and has won big.
There are other songs that need to be mentioned here, starting with “Werewolf,” the leadoff track about life and death that is just classic Simon: building melody, spare guitars that turn full, percussion you can set your watch by, and words crammed into the lines at almost a Joycean clip. The line that resonates the most? “Life is a lottery / a lot of people lose.”
“Street Angel” is, to use the more urban parlance, an outright banger, with a pounding backbeat and gospel-like backing vocals; Simon’s lyrics are impressively profound lyrics, and the only down side is that it’s all over in about two minutes. Later on the album, the guitar work on “The Riverbank” is bluesy and low, and Simon’s storytelling flows evenly over the tambourines and claps.
The biggest draw on Stranger to Stranger, though, is probably the second single, “Cool Papa Bell.” It starts off with a treble-laden guitar line that sounds like an outtake from Graceland, but then segues into Simon riffing about simultaneously trying to fit in and hate what he’s fitting into. To wit: “Every day I’m here, I’m grateful, and that’s the gist of it. / Now you may call that a bogus bullshit new age point of view, / But check out my tattoo / It says wall to wall fun.” You want to laugh, but you’re too busy grooving and trying to figure out how the fastest man to ever play baseball factors in with all of it.
There are, of course, the calmer songs, the more plodding and self-indulgent tunes that maybe don’t stand out on the first or second listen, but eventually, with repeated playings, become integral parts of the whole. The title track is one of those, a gushing love song with a tune that makes sense in its resolution but isn’t immediately accessible. The same holds true for the instrumental “In the Garden of Edie” (presumably Brickell, Simon’s wife): it’s lovely, full of inspired plucking and gentle harmonics, but it’s nowhere near single material.
Stranger and Friend
Look: most artists, even the best of artists, cannot sustain a viable and respected career well into their eighth decade, but Simon has managed to do just that. Stranger to Stranger doesn’t reach the bar raised by Graceland, but expecting it to is unfair and unreasonable. Every artist has a peak — it’s avoiding the steep slide that’s a challenge, but Simon rises to it. This is his strongest effort in a while, perhaps as far back as The Rhythm of the Saints, but more than that, it’s a tribute to longevity. In an industry ruled by flavors of the month, isn’t that refreshing?