Review: Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger

Stranger to Stranger sees Simon getting even more highbrow, inspired by mid-20th century Californian composer Harry Partch
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Stranger to Stranger sees Simon getting even more highbrow, inspired by mid-20th century Californian composer Harry Partch
paul simon stranger to stranger.jpg

Paul Simon? But…he’s old! Yes he is. And he’s maybe the most gracefully aged person in rock music, if that means anything to ya. Actually, let’s go further: Paul Simon might be the only rock artist in history who continues to both act his age and to make music that survives comparison with the best of his youth. Heady statements, yeah. But…well, shit, it’s not like you’re gonna call me on it, are ya? C’mon: what’s the last Paul Simon album you’ve heard? Thought so.

The general popular music-listening audience just plain doesn’t tend to keep up with artists over the age of about, oh, 35, at least not with the feverish, obsessive, unreflective attentiveness of the youth that makes that music’s punch possible. It’s understandable. Popular music is a young person’s game, and rock music a nostalgic’s. When you’re young and dumb and full of cum, you want sounds existing accurately to your physical condition, to your body’s wonts and wants…and thus, presumably, indicative of its place in history.

My own generation—in their twenties—tends not to want to think about that last part very much. The prospect of actually reckoning with your place in history is, after all, fucking terrifying, and as confusing as ever in 2016. So whatever, give ’em Mac DeMarco or Jason DeRulo or whatever. Life goes on.

Despite all the sob stories and obituaries, this has actually worked out okay for rock music, because rock artists don’t wanna grow up either. (Lest you think I’m picking on aone, neither do hip-hop artists.) Listen to, say, the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up”, or Paul McCartney’s “My Brave Face”, or even Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”: great records, but their nervous energy is the product of artists creating music against the grain of middle age, instead of taking advantage of the qualities unique to it. And that’s middle age. For a rock artist to secure Serious Acclaim into old age, they have to work into a persona, a character, in order to get their image “locked in time” in the pop narratives and thus relevant to the necessary media cycles. This can often be pretty embarrassing. Just listen to how even the most justly legendary figures of the rock era sound now. It’s actually pretty depressing to think about. Paul McCartney, for instance: still capable of brilliant compositions, but dear God is that voice shattered; once one of the most beautifully textured instruments in pop, now a weary croak. Joni Mitchell and Sting, may God have mercy on their souls, decided 30 years ago that getting old meant getting boring. Stevie Wonder barely even works anymore. Pete Townshend’s sanctification of youth and horror of aging became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Nick Cave still plays the enfant terrible in his fifties, if indeed he was ever all that great. Even Dylan himself, though still capable of great work, has adapted this gothic country-rock Cormac McCarthy persona that forces the critics to feel like they should keep up with him. And Madonna…well, let’s not even talk about her. Too depressing to think about.

It’s not just a matter of flagging ideas, it’s also a matter of the physical ability to execute them: the slowing and eventual breakdown of the body within an aesthetic that demands vitality. It’s distinctly possible that rock music is simply incapable of being simultaneously grand and mature; that it needs the too-unreflective-to-know-any-better enthusiasm of youth.

Paul Simon is the exception that proves the rule. He’s always been himself. He’s the only major musician from the last generation that actually accomplished anything who continues to make music that realizes and reflects on the cleansing power of all that youthful terror and confusion. He’s even kept his voice in good shape, which is more than you can say for Dylan or McCartney. True, Simon was never all that rock-and-roll in the first place. But it seems significant nonetheless that he keeps making music for grown-ups in a world with swiftly lowering expectations for same. The only other major artists of the rock era I can think of who’ve made consistent efforts toward maturity are Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel, and the former still makes a lot of tedious wankery and the latter’s hardly prolific. Simon, through some miracle of intelligence, diligence, cosmopolitan interests, good taste, and good humor, bursts with sound and joy every time out. (Well, he turned into a boring New York version of James Taylor for a while there in the ’70s, and The Capeman really was a baffling failure, but let’s ignore that.)

As someone starved for colorful formalism in a musical world filled with little of the sort, I’ve been looking forward to this new Simon album for years. Stranger to Stranger is the man’s first record since 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, which found him as musically ambitious as ever. That album seemed on the surface like the usual for Simon: just another charming folk-rock album with African and Latin tinges. But it brims with dazzling melodies and a downright innovative sense of harmonic ebb-and-flow; the more you listen, the more powerful it gets. Check the opening track, “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”, the best original Christmas song since “Fairytale of New York”: it works a looped acoustic guitar fragment over call-and-response samples of a black evangelical preacher in 1941 and his crowd responding with fervor, phasing playfully and then profoundly over each other to make a downright prophetic commentary on a past and present America. The song makes you realize the struggles and historical realities of Christmases past, and your ability to make the most of the new one. The way that preacher’s voice loops in and out between Simon’s lyrics is just startling; among contemporary pop musicians, only Kanye West has such a command of how to morph speech and singing into something new and unexpected.

Stranger to Stranger sees Simon getting even more highbrow, inspired by mid-20th century Californian composer Harry Partch. Partch was a true eccentric; this is someone who lived a legit hobo lifestyle during the Great Depression, posited that an octave had 43 tones rather than 12, and built various instruments (from percussion to woodwinds) on that basis. Partch composed in attempt to bridge sound and speech: justly intoned, microintervalic music that served as the American (specifically Californian) mid-century crusade against equal-temperament tunings. Consider Partch one of the American bridges from Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire: such small intervals that ears can’t easily pick up on where the tones even begin and end. His Genesis of a Music was influential to the subsequent American avant-garde as well as jazz figures like Charles Mingus, and quite pretty to boot.

But you don’t need to know any of that stuff to feel the sheer invention of sound and color here. The first song on the album is called "The Werewolf", and it’s THE BEST PIECE OF MUSIC I’VE HEARD IN YEARS. The sheer mastery of form there is astonishing, and actually jarring in a way that makes me aware of how much juvenile crap I swallow every day that’s created without half as much calm control as Simon exerts here.

Weird twangy string noise opens, vaguely southeast-Asian, like a detuned banjo stretched way up in pitch. Very quickly it slides way up, then halfway down, then back up again. That slide happens three times, then morphs before your ears into a wolf’s howl that sounds like a horn call deep in the wilderness, and you realize that the slide of that weird twangy sounds like how the human voice speaks the word “werewolf.” The percussion falls in, three discernible steps down into a flamenco-style beat, hand-claps and foot-stomps offsetting the drums themselves, which are digitally slowed-down here and there to sound like someone exhaling, a puff of air released from a mechanical chamber of some sort. First lines: “Milkwaukee man led a fairly decent life, made a fairly decent living, had a fairly decent wife. She killed him…ahhh, sushi knife.” So you think, “Okay, standard Simon: humorous, middle-class, eliciting polite chuckles from the NPR sets.” But as recorded, that “ahhh” sounds so heartening and touching and stoic, it leads seamlessly into the line about “shopping for a fairly decent afterlife.” Vocal harmonies like an old-school doo-wop group blur in between the wolf howls like eerie misty wind, a lost Mills Brothers song or something. It’s a very haunting, very “I Only Have Eyes for You” sound, existing in some surreal half-remembered modernist delta. And then those harmonies offset a low foghorn pitch, like a didgeridoo or a tuba, and there’s tension afoot, Simon murmuring that “the werewolf”s coming.’ Wolves—such dependable imagery for feeling exotic and dangerous.

The issue of class makes itself known in the next verse: “the winners, the grinners, with money-colored eyes, eat all the nuggets, then they order extra fries.” The weird twang starts appearing more frequently as the percussion locks up a tad, faster, into a march, harmonies thinning in and out. You still don’t know quite what the werewolf signifies: a monster we’re all becoming? A transformation we’ll undertake to destroy the evil bastards? Both? “I’m not complaining, just the opposite my friend/I know it’s raining, but we’re coming to the end of the rainbow,” Simon sings into the bridge, glassy bells tinkling around him like some strange narcotic haze. He’s both anxious and hopeful about the transformation he prophesies. A rich exotic string noise surges into the background, then drops out again for a few bars to bring your attention back to the words: “stock up on water, canned goods off the shelves, and loot some for the old folks who can’t loot for themselves.” It feels portentous, like an incantation; like he’s trying to summon some cleansing force not yet understood.

And then the song enters its last minute and Simon sings “…and when it’s midnight,” and the wolf bites, and this two-note blast of horns comes in, pauses half a bar, then folds into this beautiful elegiac hook that sounds straight out of Graceland itself. I couldn’t dream of conveying the power of these sounds, but lemme tell ya: the climax reached with those horn blasts, after all the previous thickening and insistence of texture, is a release of tension that’s kinda shocking, the sort “conflicted control” indicative of the best ‘60s counterculture artists that we don’t hear much anymore and sadly won’t hear for very much longer. The horns are clearly meant to emphasize how old and synthetic they now feel, and yet also how purely joyful they remain nonetheless in their simple artifice and escape. After all that woozy militance, the wolf bites at midnight, and for a moment that strike feels better than anything in the world. And then everything drops out with a howl and just barely wobbles back in, and Simon sings the second of his two lines over those horns (“she really got the appetite”), anguished and cathartic, then lifting instantly into a puddled blur of voices and a big portentous pump organ swelling over to imply dread and doom, lifting nonetheless into something or anything else. I felt the tears come to my eyes.

So this album would already be worth a listen even if the rest were pure crap. Thankfully, it isn’t. In the same way the opener’s development is controlled in a way we don’t hear anymore, so too is the straight groove of “Wristband”, which is also catchiest in show. The upright bass riff it’s based around is so damn cool, the kind of thing it’s so nice to hear done right after all the half-assed retro-soul nonsense on the charts recently. At this point you get that wonderful feeling where you know within the first two or three songs of an album that you’re in the hands of someone who’s wise and experienced enough with their craft that they’re not gonna drastically fuck anything up; someone who knows pace and release. You can just let it wash over you. “Wristband” is about stepping outside the backstage door to have a smoke and check your email (“see if I can read the screen”) and getting locked out of your own show, so you have to walk around the block to find they won’t let you in without a wristband. As written, it sounds “amusing” in that light Simon-y way. But the music has a genuine sense of mischief to it, because Simon doesn’t call attention to how fucking witty a concept this is. He knows it’s not actually that witty. He just tries to evoke the low-key, everyday absurdity of the situation, and composes accordingly. The song evokes the sense of being in a city, a little pressured and a little goofy, with a three-minute nicotine head rush, and his scat-singing break, soon backed by a trumpet that sounds like it’s playing two rooms over, is a thing of beauty and a brilliant offhand bit of melody-making. The song starts out amusing, then works to “the riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly, then they spread into the heartland towns that never get a wristband.” It seems significant that Simon, who people once mocked for trying to be too middle-class (and they were right, he got sickly for a while after his glorious debut), remains such a keen observer of America the melting pot. Exclusionary capitalism—a ridiculous cartoon!

Now, I won’t pretend there isn’t some boring stuff on here too. Specifically the slow, “atmospheric” love ballads: the title track and “Proof of Love”. Not that they don’t retain some atmosphere, but they both sound like the kind of slow atmosphere that were done with a lot more color and melody and development on So Beautiful or So What or Surprise (his Eno collaboration). Simon’s vocals are measured and supple—it’s lovely when he sings about the wind blowing and really does sound like the wind—and he’s still using those skittering guitar lines effectively, offsetting little hums like those bugs that skim along the surface of a pond. Both tracks are pleasantly drifting, foggy, strangely jittery. But they’re both also too similar in texture and vocal phrasings, and lines like “I hear a voice inside my skin” or musical bits like the elevator jazz tone of the muted trumpet in the title track are the kind of things that mean approximately nothing to anyone, including Simon. For that matter, calling the closer “Insomniac’s Lullaby” is tempting fate, too, because that song’s not too interesting either. It’s not bad, and actually does blur into a somewhat hallucinatory state by the end that’s comforting, but Simon’s done this kind of gentle-ness many times, and better. Does anyone else find it curious that Paul Simon’s soft slow songs now tend to be the boring ones, while his uptempo rock numbers are the highlights, and yet with Paul McCartney—who started out a lot more rock-y than Simon—it’s the exact opposite?

In a way, the foregrounded, clustered rhythms on Stranger to Stranger imply a refinement of what Simon was going for with The Rhythm of the Saints way back in 1990, where he tried to do with Brazilian music what Graceland did with South African music. Saints was Simon’s most ambitious album: often beautiful, but also somewhat awkward; the cosmopolitan sensibilities with that exotica seemed more forced than absorbed, if you will. By 2016, they sound ingrained. “In a Parade” is an infectious quick-step that sounds like its title and evokes a faster version of “The Obvious Child”. “The Riverbank”, despite the regrettably goofy line “Is there any reason the black pine should not weep?”, slips in and out of its spluttering electric guitar groove in the last minute and then locks back in seamlessly toward the end when you think it’s about to fade. “Street Angel” is a pure joy, based around a warped backwards-gospel loop that sounds like a Max Fleischer cartoon seen through a goofy childlike murk, clipping into a high plucked violin line with bass knotting up and falling out again. And “Cool Papa Bell”, which when it was premiered I found too airy, gets better as it goes along, what with the tuba and another great electric guitar skitter. That song recalls Graceland most obviously of anything here; hell, it’s basically a rewrite of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and kinda reminds me of “Gumboots” too, though in the same ways that “Gumboots” bothers me: the lyrics are so insistently grafted to the music that it’s hard to listen to it without getting exhausted. There’s a great bit in the lyrics, though: “And I think, yeah, the word is ugly/All the same, ugly got a case to make.”

Worth noting is that Simon hires excellent players, as opposed to the journeymen McCartney’s been working with for the last 30 years. Nico Muhly’s on celeste and mbira and congas and horn arrangements and plenty more. Sergio Martínez and Jack DeJohnette (he played with Miles Davis in the early ’70s) are on drums. An Italian electronic musician who calls himself Clap! Clap! helped with “The Werewolf”, “Wristband”, and “Street Angel”, and though I’d never heard of the guy before, I definitely need to catch up with him if he’s associated with three pieces of music that good. At one point you could’ve said that Paul Simon was a great post-’60s artist with a preference for pre-’60s art. But by now that seems irrelevant. Though the High Romantic aspect of Simon’s writing pretty much left after Art Garfunkel did, very few people in popular music have been more doggedly committed to bridging the gap between classical music’s sophistication and popular music’s topical depth.

So spend your capitalist dollars on this album. He’s worth them. Personally, I’m something close to disgusted that Paul Simon can keep putting out late-career albums of genuinely new sonic ideas and get damned with shrugs, while mediocrities like that new David Bowie record or that corny sleeping pill of a Radiohead album rake in praise for doing the same old shit. Simon’s bemused yet quietly furious slyness is an exemplar to us all. You might not like exactly what he’s doing, but it’s so encouraging that he knows what he’s doing. Appreciating this music won’t get you any cool points. But that’s the test, isn’t it? A MINUS