God, wristbands and swear words: Paul Simon's latest reminds us why he's so essential.
“Milwaukee man led a fairly decent life / Made a fairly decent living / Had a fairly decent wife / She killed him / A sushi knife / Now, they’re shopping for a fairly decent afterlife.”
And welcome to Stranger to Stranger.
Those lyrics are the very first things you hear escape Paul Simon’s mouth on this, his 13th studio record. They come about 14 seconds into the set’s opening track, “The Werewolf”, and if you claim to be a fan of this guy’s work on any level whatsoever, you’re immediately hooked. It’s cynical. It’s vivid. The way he enunciates “a sushi knife” with his signature mix of flippancy and condescension is far more delicious than anything found in your favorite sweet shop. It comes on top of an African rhythm that somehow manages to be sparse yet heavy.
It’s perfect. Really. It’s perfect.
For a guy who will be 75 years old in October, Paul Simon has aged like the finest of wines. His later-years output has been quietly brilliant. 2011’s So Beautiful Or So What was probably his best set since 1986’s landmark Graceland while 2006’s Surprise was probably better than most of us originally thought it was when it first spilled into the universe (and let’s not forget that it also brought the guy together with Brian Eno, which was a mild dream come true in itself). If Surprise was an interesting experiment that didn’t appeal to everybody, then So Beautiful was a meditation on … well … not appealing to everybody. He talked about rewrites, stumbling through what immediately happens after you die, and God. Even the title is defiant in its own way. Like it or don’t like it; I don’t care.
Stranger to Stranger takes that theme and amps it up ever so slightly. He’s always been a master wordsmith and his musical tastes excitingly unpredictable, but at this point, he’s just seen more things. He’s lived more life. Writing about a “roly poly little bat faced girl” 30 years ago has now been replaced with addressing “a bogus, bullshit new-age point of view” as he does here on one of the album’s best tracks, “Cool Papa Bell”. Paul Simon has made a career out of being sardonic. These days, there’s infinitely more to be sardonic about.
And that equation doesn’t necessarily have to involve age, either. The time has never been more right for an artist who has no fear when it comes to criticizing society, and in fact, revels in doing so. He told Vox’s Elon Green last month that the aforementioned lead track is meant to be a metaphor for consequence. “It’s not about the werewolf,” Simon insisted. “It’s about the cost of acting the way we’ve been acting.”
Ramification pops up often here. Single “Wristband” begins as a lighthearted tale of a rock star getting locked out of his own concert but ends with a series of cutting statements about frustration, inequality and hopelessness. “The riots started slowly / With the homeless and the lowly / Then they spread into the heartland towns / That never get a wristband / Kids that can't afford the cool brand / Whose anger is a short-hand / For you'll never get a wristband / And if you don't have a wristband / Then you can't get through the door,” he sings before repeating that final line as the song fades. It’s the quintessential Paul Simon move: endear himself by winning hearts with whimsy before proving his point with parable. The fact that he does it all with an Afropop structure makes it all the more signature.
“In a Parade” plays with a similar formula, albeit with more humor. It moves rambunctiously, eventually diagnosing the set’s protagonist, a street angel who appears in more than one song, as schizophrenic. Multiple drums ring out constantly throughout all this, creating, predictably, a parade-like atmosphere while the singer explains why he’s not in a position to talk. “Street Angel”, which is equally as short, proves to be more provocative if only for a refrain like, “God goes fishing / And we are the fishes / He baits his lines / With prayers and wishes.” With drummer Jack DeJohnette’s impeccable feel driving it, the track adds up to be both enthralling and even a little weird (in the best ways possible, of course).
More foreseen is Simon’s knack for balladry. The title track is just so pretty. “I’m just jittery,” he proclaims to what sounds like a battle-worn love, before admitting it’s “Just the way I’m dealing with my joy.” It’s a sweet line, one as romantic as it is self-effacing, and when you hear his voice pick up as the notion is reiterated, it’s hard not to fall into a romance-tested trance. “Proof of Love” picks up the pace slightly, but it’s no less beautiful. Circular in nature, he struggles with finding answers from God, one of the most consistent themes throughout all his work. Yet still, after all these years, not only is Simon crazy, but he also somehow manages to make the inquiries sound fresh.
Kind of like “Cool Papa Bell”, which is easily one of his career’s most profane songs. Named after a hall of fame Negro League baseball player, musically, it could pass for something on Graceland. Yet now his sentiments cut deeper than they did decades ago, most noticeably as he wrestles with the ugliness of the word "motherfucker". It's perfect Paul Simon -- that point where hilarity meets neuroses meets observation meets intelligence. The inflections in his voice make the wonderment work, but it's the mind behind the statement that serves as a reminder, even now, why his is such an essential voice in the pop lexicon. Nobody can do what he does. In fact it's hard to even imagine anyone attempting to try.
That's why Stranger to Stranger is so exciting. Paul Simon is simply playing on a different field than the rest of the teams. So much so that the lone disappointment here -- the set is only 11 tracks and 38 minutes with two ostensible throwaways, making for really only nine engaging songs -- can be forgiven. Why? Because any new Paul Simon is better than no new Paul Simon.
"When I have times that words desert me, music is the tongue I speak," he sings on "Proof of Love". It's a language all to his own, of course. And Stranger to Stranger makes a strong case for why that dialect, now more than ever, is unequivocally imperative.