“When at times my words desert me,” Paul Simon sings halfway through his new album, Stranger to Stranger, “Music is the tongue I speak.” That attitude has served as Simon’s musical mission statement over the past decade as the singer has gracefully aged into the role of experimental elder statesman, starting with Surprise, his 2006 Brian Eno collaboration, then, the understated 2011 collection So Beautiful or so What, which found Simon experimenting with sampling, and culminating in his most recent late-career gem. As Simon progresses into the latter stages of his career, he has relied on his unrelenting insistence in the primacy of music over lyrics, tinkering with increasingly diverse soundscapes and complex rhythmic patterns on each subsequent record.
Simon makes it clear from the beginning notes of album opener “The Werewolf” that he’s far from done expanding his bag of production methods and sonic palettes. Indeed, the 11 songs that comprise the 74-year-old singer’s latest amount to one of his very boldest collections to date. Between the two abstract instrumental pieces, the electronic samples provided by Italian producer Clap! Clap!, the flamenco hand-clap rhythms that adorn several tracks, and the esoteric 19th-century instruments (what’s a Cloud Chamber Bowl?) used on the quiet waltz “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” Stranger, his first record in five years, is brimming with concepts and sounds that push Simon’s musical boundaries further than ever.
Although several tracks are full of weighty ideas about class politics and collective communion, Simon has never been more willing to poke fun at himself than he is on Stranger. He gets barred from his own gig on “Wristband,” bares his soul to a tattered stranger on “Street Angel,” and insists that he’s “wall-to-wall fun” on “Cool Papa Bell.” The latter, a breezy, mid-tempo number that gets its namesake from the Baseball Hall of Famer, is the undisputed highlight, a delightful bit of joyful nonsense set to Vincent Nguini’s indelible guitar licks that recall Simon’s Graceland heyday.
Instead, the veteran singer reserves his self-seriousness for just a few select moments: “The Riverbank” is a stark collage of American grief and mourning that alludes to foreign war and mass shootings, whereas the nearly six-minute “Proof of Love” chronicles a wandering, righteous spiritual quest soundtracked by spectral flutes and haunting background vocals.
Mostly though, Simon is far more interested in emphasizing his playful side. Even when he’s gently denouncing money and wealth (one of this album’s favorite pastimes), he does so with uncharacteristic goofiness: “The winners, the grinners, with money-colored eyes,” he sings on “The Werewolf,” “Eat all the nuggets/Then they order extra fries.”
Stranger to Stranger is, finally, Simon’s most interconnected work, a self-contained world unto itself full of backing tracks that wind up in multiple songs and recurring characters (“the Street Angel”) who pop up in unexpected places. That type of self-referencing is also a first of sorts for Simon, yet another indicator that he has never stopped finding new ways to get excited and curious about his own, still-challenging, ever-expanding art.
“Cool Papa Bell”
On this shimmering pop gem, Simon is as exuberant as ever as he expounds on the virtues of cursing all the while insisting that he’s “wall to wall fun.”
Despite the various obscure, experimental instruments Simon used on this track, the album closer is the most classic-sounding Simon ballad here. It’s a tender, moving sendoff with a flowing melody that recalls early 70’s folkie Paul Simon.