ALBUM: Stranger to Stranger ARTIST: Paul Simon
Album release date: March 25 / 2016
An Honest Question
I grew up listening to Paul Simon. The bubbly, earthly, richly textured tones of Graceland rang through my childhome on the regular. His work with Garfunkel was on constant rotation, as was his solo stuff. By the time I was six I was singing along with the inscrutable lyrics of songs like Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard, Gumboots and American Tune. I couldn’t get enough of the heavily percussive nature of the music: his manner of teasing both melody and primordial beat out of myriad instruments was mesmerizing, and his lyrics – teetering between maniacal and profound – made themselves into the file cabinets of my brain, never to be removed. For years his name has been the first one to spring – reverentially, mind you – from my mouth upon being asked the perennial question “So, what kinda music do you listen to?” I have worn my adulation of Paul Simon like a badge of honor, feeling quietly smug over my ripe taste in music. None of that newfangled hipster stuff for me, thank you: I loved the real-deal before it had ever been hocked by thin lads with scraggly hair. Paul Simon has long epitomized true originality to many people – maybe because he doesn’t sound like anyone else, in words or music; and in his wake have run countless creatives trying to gather up even a handful of the dust kicked up from his sacerdotal heels, to jar and examine and imitate.
It came as a surprise to me, then, when I began to research the man behind the music and discovered something quite different than I’d expected. Far from being a light-hearted, colorful, open-minded, enthusiastic sort of man (as his lyrics, music, and collaboration with Chevy Chase in the hilarious ventriloquist music video for Call Me Al seem to imply), Paul Simon comes off in interviews (and second-hand accounts from people who have worked with him) as rather – well, rather an odd, grumpy fellow. His sense of humor is anemic: meaning, he hasn’t one, at least not one that’s discernable. The concept of “friendly rapport” seems to be unknown to him: it’s actually quite uncomfortable to hear interviewers attempt to joke with him, only to be met with laconic quips bordering on severe. Mix that with accusations from Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin that Simon stole what became The Myth of Fingerprints on the career-regenerating Graceland (and a whole host of other melodic ideas, to boot) and I was left with a vague sense of cognitive dissonance.
Up to this point, I’ve refrained from making any hard-nosed assumptions about Simon based on these facts: brilliant people are often decidedly idiosyncratic, and people don’t always tell the truth to reporters about how things really went down. Still, though: in listening to Simon’s latest album Stranger to Stranger, I couldn’t help but wonder if what I was listening to was as phenomenal as everyone is cracking it up to be – couldn’t help but ask if it was being lauded as “revolutionary,” “distinct” and “fresh” simply because everyone’s gotten into the habit of using those terms to describe everything Paul Simon has done post Graceland: even if it doesn’t deserve to be described thus.
Then again: maybe it is phenomenal. I’m still trying to figure that out.
Variations on an Ever-Changing Theme
The album starts off with an unassumingly glib-sounding, but thematically dark, tune called The Werewolf. It tells the tale of a regular man who’s regular life gets cut short by his sushi-knife wielding wife, and then makes relaxed commentary on how whether you’re rich or poor you’re going to wind up dead, all the while chugging along with layers of precocious percussion. Cathedral-like organ swells – like a dirge – begin soaking up every other sound toward the end, and the song finishes with the sound of a howl. It’s weird, textured, interesting, indulgent, and smartly-written: a good foretaste of the album as a whole.
Simon’s reedy voice is the same as ever. His enunciation is crystal clear, and his word-choice beguiling. Only Paul Simon could write and deliver a song like Wristband – the second track on the album, which has a decidedly flamenco influence – and tease out various nuances from a typically inane subject-matter. The song actually is about wristbands and how they represent different things depending on a given situation, and depending on the people wearing them (or not wearing them).
Lyrically, the album jumps around somewhat manically: there is no particular motif that’s being expounded upon here, no formally-identified philosophy that’s being examined or lauded. Simon meanders through questions and comments concerning death, the afterlife, the reason-ability of belief, apathy in language (“Motherf****er: ugly word. Ubiquitous and often heard as a substitute for someone’s Christian name. The word is ugly, all the the same” he sing-speaks gently in Cool Papa Bell: let this be a warning for any listeners who might have small kids). Some songs sound like they’ve been lifted from the pages of a Dr. Suess book, the words are so jostling and mad-hatterish – In A Parade is the most insane-sounding of them all in this regard. Its jangling, fractured, dissonant tonality add to this.
It is in fact these fractured, dissonant sounds that tie the whole album together beneath the many-prismed lyrics and themes expressed therein. The 20th century American composer Harry Parch, who believed an octave was not divided into 12 tones but that the actual division was 43 distinct tones, has had an immense influence on Simon, who cites him specifically when commenting on the creative process of the album. Simon expresses a great appreciation for the “strangely beautiful” tones Parch was able to elicit from his hand-made instruments: instruments crafted with microtonal intervals so as to express the unrealized, untapped notes he heard within his mind. “It sounds like a dream – a strange dream,” he says when describing Parch’s music, “Which is why I used it in Insomniac’s Lullaby,” the first song written for this album.
Melody tracks are laced throughout the entirety of the album like a thread, recapitulating themes and motifs to make things cogent and synthesized. Rhythm-sections show up repeatedly throughout the whole project: the main movement of Wristband comes from the rhythm and bass part of the first chorus of The River Bank – the only change being that it’s been sped up and the key has been changed. The album is “an accumulation of everything I’ve been doing since I was fifteen… A lifetime’s experience: a ‘summation album’. [It’s] information [that I’ve] acquired over the years, and [broken] into new sound territory,” Simon explains.
A Case of the Maybe’s
“The fact is, most obits are mixed reviews,” he remarks casually in the opening track. Some people see themselves as winners, some see themselves as losers, and some couldn’t care less either way. Life, death, music, people – they all get “mixed reviews.” For all his apparent idiosyncrasies, and despite whatever facts a person could dredge up to besmirch his name (when have humans ever not done that to one another?), I for one cannot deny the artistic talent embodied in Paul Simon. It’s difficult to qualify, difficult to follow, difficult to trace, emulate, explain, and digest: but maybe that’s just what makes it brilliant. Perhaps it’s the very oddity of his music that allows it to present itself as such a powerful gestalt of thought, experimentation, experience, and creativity.
Stranger to Stranger is odd, indeed, and not for the faint of heart: I’m still on the fence about it, still unsure of my own opinion. I’m coming up with more “maybe” statements than anything definitive.
But… maybe Paul Simon wanted his listeners to wrestle with the irresolution of their own opinion of the music, just as they must wrestle with the irresolution of its tone.