Paul Simon "Stranger to Stranger"

One of the great challenges of a veteran musician is the art of keeping one’s work fresh and relevant. Paul Simon, who published his first song at age fourteen, has been active for sixty years. He’s suffered his down years and lackluster efforts, but he’s also created some of the most lasting songs and albums of his generation. As he approaches his 75th birthday in October, the singer has publically contemplated retirement. If Stranger to Stranger becomes his last album it’s a fine place to end, particularly as it is co-produced with Simon’s long-time partner Roy Halee.

Simon resurrected a flagging career in 1986 with Graceland, a resplendent album that featured musicians from South Africa and a mix of genres. He followed up in 1990 with Rhythm of the Saints, another brilliant but less lauded release that featured Latin American, particularly Brazilian musicians and musical styles. In the 2000s Simon moved in various directions with mixed results, including Surprise a Brian Eno produced album that employed electronic and sampled elements. Stranger to Stranger gleans from those releases, leaping genre, production techniques, and cultural influence from track to track. His supporting cast, all outstanding musicians represent a wide swath of ethnicity. The same goes for the choice of instrumentation which range from the typical rock mélange to strings, horns, and a variety of instruments from around the globe.

Stranger to Stranger is adrift in off-kilter rhythms and jittery melodies that twist in unpredictable directions. “Werewolves” is flamenco flavored and driven by handclaps, finger snaps, and a cacophony of percussion. “Street Angel” is built on altered samples from The Golden Gate Quartet. “In a Parade” could be part of a Brazilian festival and re-introduces the character Street Angel. “Cool Papa Bell celebrates the life of a Negro league star and offers one of the rare examples of expletives in Simon’s work. “Proof of Love” and “Insomniac’s Lullaby” are beautiful ruminations on mortality, on endings of all sorts, on the temperament of relationships. Simon language is opaque, allowing for multiple avenues of interpretation. Simon’s output, although gorgeously decorated, is trimmed in mournful tones. Although his voice retains a youthful flexibility and lilt, it can’t erase the years that inform his view of the world.  

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)

 

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