Collaborating with an Italian Electronic Music Producer (Clap! Clap!)? Check.
Incorporating obscure musical instruments (cloud-chamber bowls, chromelodeon) invented by radical microtonal American composer Harry Partch (worth a google) seamlessly into your songs? Check.
Utilising more instruments on one album than some bands would in their whole career? Check.
And so it is that the 13th studio album from the American Institution that is Paul Simon arrives into the world. Simon who is approaching 75 thankfully shows no signs of letting up, drying up or going into creative cruise control on Stranger to Stranger. Indeed it could be argued that because of the restless innovation, energy, wit, poetry and musical adventure on display here that he has never been more vital.
Opening track ‘The Werewolf’ makes the case perfectly – the first of three collaborations with Clap! Clap!. Built up around a rich rhythm track this song is not instantly catchy and unfurls slowly and deliberately as it goes along but it is the lyrics here that will bring you back again. There are a couple of ‘did he just say that’ moments in this song. Acidic and acerbic barbs like “ignorance and arrogance a national debate” and “the winners the grinners with money coloured eyes, eat all the nuggets and they order extra fries” are just some examples of this.
This is followed up by ‘Wristband’ the comeback single from the album. It was the first inkling that an album was in the works. It’s a humourous tale of a musician prevented from gaining entry into his own show because he doesn’t have the aforementioned wristband. It’s catchy as hell and is one of the standout tracks on the album with vocal delivery a highlight.
‘Stranger to Stranger’ is more downbeat but no less commendable in its endeavour. Containing the chorus “i’m just jittery, its just a way of dealing with my joy”, it’s the way that Simon wrings every last bit of melody out of this line that draws you in. He’s in reflective mood here though, singing “if we met for the first time, this time could you imagine us falling in love again”.
‘In a parade’ finds Simon in a hospital waiting room being backed by a Samba band. It is upbeat and head-nodding but the lyrics say otherwise featuring a recurring character from a previous track on the album. ‘Cool Papa Bell’ sounds like it was leftover from the Gracelandsessions and makes you feel good in the way that some of the best tracks from that album did.
Closing track ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’ is probably the most traditional fare on the album and consisting chiefly of a beautiful guitar accompaniment and sparse instrumentation the focus is solely on Simon. Gone are the samba bands, the obscure instrumentation here we find Simon intoning “‘Oh Lord don’t keep me up all night, with questions I can’t understand”. This lullaby is contemplative and plaintive, two of the main themes which run right through the spine of this album. Fans of folkie Simon will love this.
Simon, always more perfectionist than prolific, gives us 11 tracks lovingly crafted to digest, including two instrumental tracks specifically included to ‘give listeners space.’ The beauty of this album is that with all of the disparate influences, crazy instruments, drum loops, synthesisers, etc., that it doesn’t collapse under its own weight. No two songs sound the same. Simon is a singer-songwriter in the truest sense. Sure, he can write a song and play guitar but he does so much more than that. At times serious, at times satirical, always stepping out of his comfort zone and striving for artistic integrity. To paraphrase the man himself when at times words desert him, music is the tongue he speaks. And my how he speaks.