Review by Dan Byrnes of Paul Simon, his 2016 album, Stranger to Stranger. Concord Music Group Records/Virgin/EMI (on 8-9-2016).
Paul Simon (born 1941 so now aged 74 ) is apparently a bit sleepless at night, hence his song, Insomniac’s Lullaby. Stranger to Stranger is Simon’s 13th studio album and follows his 12th album released in 2011, So Beautiful or So What.
Simon is still hip, still writes a good line, a satirical line or a perceptively sad line; sometimes even a timeless line. He also has the reputation and the friends to do pretty much what he likes, and with Stranger to Stranger he’s done it again. Stranger is mostly an experimental album, concerned to explore either unusual instruments, or, Partch’s alternative theory of music itself.
Creatively, Stranger is not a patch on Graceland, far a better-quality album, yet in many ways it is unfair to compare them. The nature of the experiments conducted for Stranger make it a smaller-scale album, but it’s still witty, still interesting, without being what Graceland was, which was riveting.
My favourite line from Stranger is from Insomniac’s Lullaby, where a sleepless Simon, condemned to be up-all-night, prays that God will save him “from questions I can’t understand”. (Not “don’t understand” but can’t understand”.)
My favourite song on Stranger is probably Cool Papa Bell, a blather of seeming satirical nonsense where Simon lets loose a spray on the absurdities of contemporary USA. The song’s maybe a bit unfair to the actual Cool Papa Bell, who was an Afro-American baseball player 1922-1950 (James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, a centre fielder, died 1991), reputed to be the fastest baseball player ever. Simon seems to be saying that to avoid today’s USA absurdities, you have to move your mind pretty quickly or risk being eaten-up by rampant stupidity, in the sense that this is how the world is these days: it’s the stupid, stupid. And I quite agree.
But overall with this album, I suspect that the music experiments and the musical ideas came first, the lyrics came second, the artistic satisfaction came in third and late. One of the characteristics of the album is the repetition of lyrical lines (“I can’t talk now, I’m in a parade.”) plus repetition of purely musical lines and motifs. And finally we have it. Two short-but-marvellous guitar instrumentals to give the listener a rest; tracks originally written for a stage play. A few well-done satires. Amused pity for “street angels”, a link back to the guy who pretentiously “can’t talk now, I’m in a parade” (These days, Simon can’t see why an interesting character can’t appear more than once on a music album, and well, why not?)
Stranger also gives us several songs, miscellaneous, about genuine tragedies (Riverbank) or Insomniac’s Lullaby. A moving-mystifying encounter with a Brazilian faith healer (Proof of Love).
Among the musical inspirations were some sessions exploring flamenco spontaneity. Three tracks using ideas from the Italian electronic dance music virtuoso, Clap! Clap! (Digi G’Alessio). Musical ideas from Harry Partch, a 20th Century composer who heard 43 tones in an octave, not the 12 tones we usually hear, so Partch invented instruments (Cloud Chamber Bowls, Sonic Canons) to reveal these notes. Plus a new instrument from a Partch devotee and curator of Partch instruments, Dean Drummond, inventor of the Zoomoozophone.
One of Partch’s ideas was that atonal works derived from his music were akin to the spoken word, and Stranger is an unusual album, in that I at least felt it was full of musical experiments devoted to backing up not so much a good songwriter, which Simon is, but a poet-wordsmith devoted to the spoken word, which Simon also is, but less often.
And so, Stranger is a 74-year-old Paul Simon at play, perfectly happy to mine failure or experiments to finally get success and make it fun as well – wall-to-wall fun if we can believe Cool Papa Bell.
Simon has done it again and given us new things as well. He’s vastly enjoyed some musical experiments, being with his musicians various; and his old recording pal, Roy Halee, whom Simon dragged out of retirement. The interesting cover art is from a portrait of Simon by Chuck Close.
Age hasn’t dimmed Simon’s talents one bit. Stranger to Stranger is an excellent album, but just, not as good as Graceland. And it’s interesting. It’s not as if the music world isn’t awash with a helluva lot of experiments, there is a lot of sampling going on. Paul Simon seems to see it all, keep on top of all of it, and come out on top yet again. More power to his old age. (Ends 757 words)