Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger
Released June 3, 2016
By Ethan White
When an artist as legendary as Paul Simon releases a new album, it should perk your ears up at least a little. His 13th solo album and the first in five years has received critical acclaim, and for good reason. Stranger to Stranger adventures through many sonic landscapes with an eclectic range of instruments, both familiar and one-of-a-kind. It has the feel of a journey taking place that many great records have, and it ranges in style from near-psychedelic to stripped-down folk, but it’s all still very Paul Simon; with storytelling lyrics that are packed with irony and humour, while remaining thought-provoking and pensive.
The album kicks off with the thumping sound of The Werewolf. The clean and groovy congas and wash of shakers really make this song. Coupled with the layered slide guitar, they reminded me of songs from Xavier Rudd’s White Moth album. The organ synth in the bridge was a great addition at the end and brings closure to the song - appropriate given its death-related themes.
Wristband is next, again with some seriously syncopated grooviness and a bouncy upright bass that makes you want to dance. The imagery is funny and deceivingly light-hearted at first, but it expands later in the song to speak more deeply about levels of privilege.
The Clock is a break from the wild of the first two songs, with a beautifully chimy drone that evens out the pace of the album. Street Angel runs through a bobbing gospel sound with an experimental quirkiness, featuring massive drums and slide guitar.
The title track slows down the pace into a ballad that sways emotionally, but had a little bit of a disappointing chorus hook that just didn’t, well, hook me very well. The music is beautiful, however, and I loved the airy palm-muted clean guitar melody. It is my least favourite song on the album, but maybe just because it’s the least upbeat, which I wasn’t expecting — and I’m not really one for ballads anyway. Great production overall though.
Probably my favourite track on the album, Proof of Love’s central guitar riff grabs you instantly and the ethereal, fluttering woodwinds, strings and bells whisk you away to a heavenly atmosphere, juxtaposed by the sharp, steely, bluesy guitar synths that resonate like sitars. The airy and earthy elements of this track made me think of a cross between Hozier and The Shins, with a slightly Celtic twist. Maybe that’s a stretch.
The Garden of Edie is another short and sweet one, but this time with a slight melancholy to it. It’s what’s playing in the background of your life when you are staring into the eyes of your lover, knowing you won’t see them for a while... or something like that. The Riverbank has a classic blues and gospel style is only enhanced by the modern twist of shuttering delays on the guitar riff. The main melody reminded me a little of Gold Dust Woman a little surprisingly. Cool Papa Bell takes a totally different turn from the rest of the record altogether with an African flavour and lumbering tuba. The fat upright bass also helps drive the song and gives it an even thicker sound. The lyrics are weird and funny and nonetheless still brilliantly put together and thought provoking.
Insomniac’s Lullaby leaves you with a peaceful waltz that is the final irony of the album with a lulling psychedelia at the end of the choruses that actually may make you sleepy. Horace and Pete is a bonus track on the deluxe edition of the album and the theme song of the show by the same name created by Louis C.K., centred around day drinkers at the local bar. It’s pretty awesome that Paul Simon wrote the theme for the show, and I think he captured the feeling of people who have otherwise given up on life finding solace in their bar. New York Is My Home completes the deluxe edition of Stranger to Stranger with a heartfelt, easy-going tune that reminds me of The Black Keys with its stomping rhythm. I was so pleasantly surprised by this record, and applaud Paul Simon’s everlasting creativity and boldness to make an album of this calibre.