Paul Simon gets it from all sides. Some think him pretentious, others square. Some object to his corniness, others to his cultural tourism. And some just can't see beyond his association with the backseat of their parents' station wagon. For my part, I come down on the side that says Paul Simon is one of the (seven or eight) greatest singer-songwriters and record makers of the rock 'n' roll era, and still would be if you threw out 80 percent of Simon and Garfunkel's catalog. (I'll keep "The Boxer," though.)
The new record he released on June 3 does nothing to dissuade me from that position.
The fact that Simon is 74 years old (he is, in fact, one month and five days younger than Bernie Sanders) may play a part in just how impressive, how vital, how interesting Stranger to Stranger sounds to me. But this record isn't legend-gets-a-free-ride good (the way his last three fine-but-inessential LPs were). It's wow-I-can't-believe-Paul-Simon-is-still-working-this-hard good.
The instrumental palette—unsurprisingly—includes an assemblage of international and microtonal instruments most people have never heard of. Also unsurprisingly for Simon, the unconventional sounds made by these instruments are not ornamental but integral—not only to the arrangements but to the songwriting. The twang of the Indian gopichand made Simon think of the word "Werewolf," which led him into the album opener (and highlight) "The Werewolf," on which the percussion is so seductive, you hardly notice the absence of almost any other instruments in the verses. Whatever work isn't done by the flamenco claps and stomps is done by the singing, and Simon's voice is astonishingly well preserved. Better than McCartney's, better than Dylan's, better even than Garfunkel's.
The follow-your-nose approach allows the lyrics to develop in an offhand, colloquial style that strips the song's class commentary of pomposity and invests it with a dispassionate clarity that would never occur to a younger songwriter. It's not a rant. It's a mordant herald, well aware of its own distance from the epicenter of the dilemma—but no less compelled to discuss it. "I'm not complaining," he clarifies. "Just the opposite, my friend/I know it's raining, but we're coming to the end of the rainbow." Having found his subject, Simon is obviously enlivened—melodically, verbally, and vocally. The looseness feels earned.
There's a case to be made that Simon was seduced by this freedom into overstating his understatement, not to mention his street-life bona fides, on "Wristband." But I hear a wealth of self-awareness and even self-indictment in the story of a musician being denied entry into his own show. In the final verse, Simon extends the metaphor to address larger social inequities, which make the wristband snap. But because the vocal hook arises so organically from the rhythm of the acoustic bass line, the lyric extrapolation feels like a variation on the theme, a solo. If enlisting "the kids who can't afford the cool brand/whose anger is a shorthand" is a reach, it's a relevant one—not because the indignant rock star thinks he's one of them, but because he knows his inconvenience would be an unimaginable luxury to them.
From there, the album expands and contracts. It gets looser ("Street Angel" and its sort-of sequel "In a Parade"), more introspective (the stately title track and "Proof of Love"), and properly loopy ("Cool Papa Bell," which contains the album's funniest moment, a dialogue about the word "motherfucker"). But the groove is the foundation throughout, allowing him to construct a very contemporary, very idiosyncratic world on top of and out of it. (Which he also did, to notable effect, on Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints.)
Stranger to Stranger leaves the powerful impression of music itself—the process of finding it, harnessing it, capturing it, playing it, sharing it, hearing it—as an elemental source of rejuvenation, for both artist and audience. It sounds like the work of someone who, having long since aged out of plausibility as a pop figure, enlisted unlikely collaborators to help him make the least likely possible sounds, recorded an album solely to please himself, and wound up making the best, most surprising work in a couple of decades.
Paul Simon, still trying after all these years.