Artist: Paul Simon
Album: Stranger To Stranger
Label: Concord Records
Release Date: 06/03/2016
“Voice” means very different things, depending on whether it refers to a vocalist or to a writer, but Paul Simon, a leader in both categories for over 50 years, certainly commands top honors no matter which hat he’s wearing. Recently, Grammy winner Marc Cohn brought up Simon’s genius, calling him “one of the greatest songwriters of the last 100 years.” Can’t argue with that.
Highly personal songs like “Wristband,” about being locked out of his own concert and the ensuing annoying minutes (all of which I suspect were inspired by real events), “Stranger to Stranger,” which could be about a current or past love or even Art Garfunkel, and “In the Garden of Edie,” wordlessly referencing his current, sometimes embattled wife with a delicate 12-string guitar instrumental lasting under two minutes, like most of Simon’s catalogue, ring true.
Much of the album sounds experimental, even for a persistent stretch-er like Simon. We’ve come to expect fusion (African, Reggae, rock, classical, jazz) from Simon, but here he messes with other things as well, like song lengths, starting with “The Clock,” at a spare minute-plus; it tick-tocks us into thinking there may be something to follow, and there is, but it’s the next song. “Street Angel,” a rap-y tip of the hat to a street performer and by extension all buskers, gets another nod as the same Street Angel shows up again in “In a Parade,” two songs later. Lyrics to “Cool Papa Bell” sometimes verge on the conversational, punctuated by tuba and a whole battery of percussion instruments few of us have ever heard before. “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” on the other hand, at 4:33, could have been culled from a Simon & Garfunkel effort 50 years ago. Lesson: Don’t get comfortable.
Fortunately, Simon has provided extensive liner notes which I recommend referring to for at least the first three listens, and intermittently thereafter. There’s a lot that can be learned from Paul Simon, even if how to maintain greatness for 50 years isn’t included in the manual: he’s keeping that one for himself.