Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Writing Verse for the Universe: Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger

Paul Simon new album, Stranger to Stranger, will be released on Friday, June 3rd. (Photo: Myrna Suarez) 

Whenever I read about the music of Paul Simon I rarely see the word “innovator," but if the word could be used to describe someone with a good pair of ears and a street-wise sense of rhythm, Simon would definitely fit the description. His catalogue is full of “innovative works” – from the Gospel feel of There Goes Rhymin Simon (1973), the African-flavoured Graceland (1986),  to the electronically embellished Surprise (2006) – which prove that Paul Simon is a composer whose sense of innovation, if not subtle, is carefully articulated. But his songs have such wide-ranging appeal even the most astute listener can forget that Simon brings an adventurous sense to all of his music by constantly changing the so-called “Paul Simon Songbook” formula he established in the sixties. Over the years he’s become a builder of songs by establishing a beat or rhythm, writing the all-important first line and telling a story. His new record is no exception. Stranger To Stranger, (Concord) which is Simon’s 13th solo recording, is another fresh and inventive album of songs that mashup metallic percussion with backward tapes, sotto voce narratives and cosmic sounds from another world all laced with his whimsical sense of humour.

“The fact is most obits are mixed reviews,” sings Simon on his catchy opening number “The Werewolf” with its repetitive Flamenco-inspired beat and syncopated a sound effect that leaps into a B-movie finish. That track is followed by the polyrhythms of Peru and the simple crate instrument known as a cajón [ka hon], which is up front and center on the first single, “Wristband.” It’s a song that grabs you by the arm and pulls you in with a trance-like bass line and Simon’s humorous story about being challenged for not having a wristband to his own concert after the stage door closed behind him while on a break.

Simon’s voice sounds particularly strong on this record and his sympathetic tone serves him well on the title track where he claims to be happy but “joy” gives him the “jitters.” Once again nothing in Simon’s world is ideal and his sense of irony about life and love is best heard on the sardonic “In A Parade” where Simon under goes a psychological assessment in the middle of the happiest time in his life. It could be considered a follow-up to “The Afterlife” on So Beautiful or So What? (2011), only more ambiguous.

“Proof of Love” sounds like an outtake from Rhythm of the Saints with its delicate beat and layered construction. This dreamy track is either a peyote trip or a nod to Dante’s Inferno. (I’ll let you decide) It’s the best song on the album, in my opinion. “Cool Papa Bell” is probably the most introspective song in Simon’s catalogue as he visits his guru looking for answers about the afterlife, once again, and whether he has a place in it, assuming he actually gets there.

In October, Paul Simon turns 75 years old and unlike his contemporary Bob Dylan (who turned 75 last week), he’s never one to wax nostalgic by putting out an album of jazz standards. That’s not Paul Simon’s style or his sense of the times in which he lives. He’s a storyteller interested in writing something new that responds to the music, the rhythm and his own state of mind.

Stranger to Stranger will be released on Friday.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He’s just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in September.

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