Monday, 27 June 2016
Paul Simon "Stranger To Stranger" (2016)
The Werewolf/Wrist-Band/The Clock/Street Angel/Stranger To Stranger/In A Parade/Proof Of Love/In A Garden Of Edie/The Riverbank/Cool Papa Bell/Insomniac's Lullaby
Sorry guys, I can't talk now - I'm in a parade.
Ah that's better - we can think more easily here in the 'quiet'. You see, just as with last week's review of the long-awaited Monkees reunion album (out a mere ten days before this one - AAA albums are like busses) everyone's suddenly gone so mad for this album that anyone with any musical interest whatsoever is suddenly calling themselves big Paul Simon fans and proclaiming that this album is the greatest thing sliced bread (or 'Sounds Of Silence' anyway). With last week's review I kind of understood this was the case even though that album was mildly disappointing to me: it's not like we get Monkees albums very often (the last one was twenty years ago after all) and the modern world is distinctly Monkee-friendly in a way it wasn't even in the 1990s: 'fake' bands who meet in auditions and are promoted on TV aren't some rock-defying horrific experiment anymore but the social norm. I really really don't understand why the world's gone mad for 'Stranger To Stranger' though: we do get Paul Simons quite often these days (well as often as we ever did - it's been five years since the all-but-ignored 'So Beautiful Or So What?', which is about normal for Paul) but the modern world is even less Paul Simon-friendly than in 2011: music is about immediacy, melody and extrovert performances. Even by Paul Simon standards 'Stranger To Stranger' is a daring record: it's a step further on the road to the point where these are rhythm tracks with lyrics rather than songs the way the world usually thinks of the term, Paul's usual gift for melodies is largely hidden to the point where all the songs on this album sound the same until you really get to know them and yet the one constant with Paul from the past is that he is primarily an introvert: these songs are about feelings, thoughts and debates, not actions. 'Stranger To Stranger' is aptly named because even an old fan like me (who not only likes the obvious songs but glorious unsung rarities like 'One Trick Pony' and 'Surprise' as well) can't honestly say that I've fully connected with this album (not yet, anyway); that we're doomed to be strangers to each other forevermore.
Note, though, that I haven't called this album a slightly-disappointing-given-that-everyone-else-is-holding-street-celebrations-about-it-when-it's-just-kind-of-ok album like last week. There is a great record hidden lurking within 'Stranger To Stranger' (or at least there is at the beginning and end - this record sags in the middle worse than an out-of-work wrestler), but boy do you have to work for it. Those usual nuggets of Paul Simon wisdom are here in abundance - but they're hidden, great lines that you don't really hear too well because the music drowns out the vocals and the song structure means everything reads like one long verse rather than nailing the words into your brain on the hook of a, well, hook. Taken individually most (two-thirds?) of the actual songs on the album (there are also some minute long instrumental fragments to give your brain breathing space between numbers, a trick which doesn't always work) sound great when taken out of context: heard one after the other across thirty-five minutes (this is also the shortest Paul Simon album in a very long time - 'Still Crazy After All These Years' in 1975 in fact) they all sound the same. There are typical Paul Simon flourishes - a guitar lick here, a vocal phrase here - but perhaps the biggest surprise is that this sounds nothing like anything he's quite down before; by contrast other 21st century experiments like 'Surprise' (with it's Brian Eno soundscape) and 'So Beautiful Or So What?' (with its mixture of 1950s doo-wop/R and B/rockabilly given a contemporary makeover) sound almost normal compared to this one. This is ambient music, not pop or rock and roll or even world music, and your listening experience has to change so that the music floats over you instead of hanging on to parts of the music your brain can identify with. What I should be doing really is hanging on to this album for another five years or so to see how it grows (or not) and then offering thoughts about it, but unfortunately we've only got about another year's worth of reviews to go here at the AAA and nobody will want to read this review at all if I don't put it out there soon. Beware, though, that 'Stranger To Stranger' is an album in flux if ever there was one - trying to break it down into concrete parts is a little like trying to explain love using chemistry or politics using intelligence when it's something far more intangible and woolly than that.
What we can tell you for definite is that Paul has largely dropped the arc of the past decade of music or so, with barely a mention of either religion or mortality across this album (though a few evil archangels sneak in from time to time and the closing song covers both). This is, most of the time anyway, a much lighter-hearted album than its immediate predecessors and far more character-driven than autobiographical with witty observations of pompous rock stars ('Wrist-Band' is what might well have happened to Jonah Levin had the One-Trick Pony ever had a second hit), a man who can't hear himself think because he's too busy celebrating a parade and a song about a baseball player (Paul's first about his beloved sport since the mid-1970s - and no, it's not Joe Di Maggio). There are more love songs for Edie Brickell too such as 'Proof Of Love' and the memorably titled instrumental 'In The Garden Of Edie' which offer up the lighter, happier side of live. But it's the monsters who roam in this album's undergrowth that will stick in your mind the most: the werewolves who are nice in the daytime and evil killers at night with the unpredictability of who will strike you next and when amongst Paul's creepiest characters, the tribute to a teacher who died at the Sandy Hook school shootings of 2012 (with 'The Riverbank' a neat sequel to another murdered friend dating back all the way to 1964 on Simon and Garfunkel classic 'He Was My Brother') or Paul's attempt to soothe our troubled minds as he sums up how messed up the world is on the final lullaby and wonders if we'll ever sleep again. Lyrically this is an adventurous sequence of songs, roaming from jokes ('The winners eat all the nuggets - and then they order extra fries!' quips a clearly hungry Paul on 'The Werewolf'), simple teen style romance ('I love you I love you I love you' runs the chorus to the title track, surely the simplest in Paul's career even if the rest of the song is as tough as nails), gutsy politics about the gulf between withs and withouts told in modern slang ('Their anger is shorthand for 'you'll never get a wristband') surrealism ('My head is a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it!' runs the downright bonkers 'I'm In A Parade'), swearing and lexicography ('Cool Papa Bell' has a whole verse debating the derivation of the term 'motherfucker', like an upper class 'Capeman') and deep intellectual philosophy dressed in modern-day clothes ('I wear a hoodie now to cover up my mistakes'). Going by just the words, this is as varied and eclectic a collection of words as Paul has ever put together in one place before. This is exactly what I've wanted Paul to do (and which he hasn't quite pulled off for a while), so why aren't I happier about this album?
Well, it's the music - though the words go in nine different directions (two instrumentals, remember), the thirteen pieces of music plough through largely the same terrain. When you're used to the mountains and valleys and colour of 'Rhythm Of The Saints' or the incredibly varied musical palette of Simon and Garfunkel (even though the first two albums and most of the other three are just two voices and a guitar) this is a tragedy. Every song comes with the same mid-pace walking tempo, more or less, the same heavy drum shuffle keeping the musicians in check and the lack of variety or progression from one section of a song to another means that instead of bathing in the open possibilities of the whole universe (as promised by the lyrics) you're stuck on a one-way B-road somewhere terrible for the whole album. Probably the one near my house. The scenery outside the car doesn't change except for the odd passing guitar twirl or unholy racket from some modern-day synth. That's what, I fear, will cost this album the ultimate accolade of being treated as one of Paul's finest albums in the long run - whatever people are saying about this record now.
In many ways though it's inevitable: ever since 'Graceland' in 1987 rhythm has become more important to Paul than melody. The background to this album made it more inevitable still: Paul's second son Adrian, himself a big music fan with a knowledge to rival his dad, got daddy Simon interested in an Italian electronic dance artist who goes under the name 'Clap! Clap!' That moniker should give you some idea of his own love of rhythm and Paul was especially taken with the Clappy chappy's unique take on music (that instead of music being derived from eight set notes there are 43 subtle shifts in a 'microtonal scale' across the octave and a good musician should be able to use all of them). For a curious musical mind like Paul's this idea obviously appealed and though it's unclear if the pair have ever actually met up in person yet, they started a keen correspondence through e-mail, Paul passing on his demos and asking for suggestions and Clap! offering new ideas and concepts. Despite his world image as a 'loner' Paul has often worked best in collaboration and in many ways Clap! is this album's Brian Eno, taking Paul's worldly wise compositions and making them other-worldly. Only this collaboration doesn't seem to work quite as well - I don't know whether it's the fact that the pair never worked side by side or on a song from scratch or simply that their styles are incompatible, but this collaboration never sounds as if it quite clicks. Given the subject matter and lack of choruses this album would sound weird if Paul had performed it with just a voice and guitar; throwing all these extra concepts about music-making and some weird rhythmical experiments on top of the album is a bit like taking an abstract painting (like the Picasso-style rendering of Paul on the album cover) and then turning it upside down for good measure: it's a step too far. Partly through the tonal experiments and partly through the lack of melody, 'Stranger To Stranger' is a hard slog of an album to get through and I'd be surprised if fans end up feeling the connection to it they do Paul's more emotional and accessible works (then again, everyone seems to love it at the time of writing so what do I know?)
One thing you can say for this album is that, like many Paul Simon projects, it's all exquisitely recorded. That's no surprise when you see that Paul made this record with the help of one of his oldest friends, not just some young hopefuls. Roy Halee met Simon and Garfunkel the day of their audition in 1964 and worked with with them everyday since, while he also worked on solo albums like 'Paul Simon' 'Rhymin' Simon' 'Still Crazy After All These Years' and 'Graceland'. He's been missing from Paul's album credits for a while now and has actually officially retired from Warner Brothers (where he's worked ever since being poached from his job as a TV producer in the early 1960s). Paul tempted him back for this album though, turning the tables by teaching his mentor how to use modern technology like Pro-Tools, while also giving Roy the chance to do what he always did best: record an exotic array of instruments that shouldn't go together with as little fuss as possible. Though not a 'world music' production in the same way that 'Graceland' and 'Saints' are, there are all sorts of exotic textures drizzled across this record, none of which we've ever had before: woodwind from Africa, drums from Peru, modern-day synthesisers and a traditional gospel quartet. Roy, Paul and Clap! Clap! even collaborated on two entirely new instruments built especially for this album: something known as 'Cloud Chamber Bowls' (literally pyrex glass bowls suspended in a wooden frame) and a 'Chromelodeon' (a pump organ modified to a new tonal scale where each note is slightly askew). Personally I can't hear the bowls at all and the only pump organ I can hear (on 'Werewolf') just sounds like a standard horror movie organ. At least Paul and co are trying to do something different, that's something that always gets AAA bonus points, but it would make a lot more sense if we could actually, you know, hear it. I'm not sure I'm buying the 'new' tonal notes either but then, well, that's probably just the werewolf in me speaking (funnily enough it is about a quarter to twelve where I am now!)
So where does that leave us? We have an album of songs that sound largely the same, played on instruments that are meant to be different but also sound largely the same, with Paul's witty and wry observations and hidden melodies largely playing second-fiddle to a rhythm you get slightly tired of. Oh and two instrumentals actually created for another project entirely (Paul was commissioned to write them for a play, 'Prodigal Son', for John Patrick Shanley but the work got put on ice and the music hastily recycled) and which are sweet but at barely a minute each don't make much impact and really don't fit amongst the rest of the crowd here. Some of the tracks come over as large complex and unwieldy, packing oh so many thoughts into a few abstract lines the songs can't take the weight - and others like the '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover' style 'In A Parade' feel too slight. What on earth can you do with an album that's often ugly, frequently repetitive and deeply uneven and random?
You love it - or the bits of it you can attach yourself to at any rate - and try to understand it. 'Stranger' is an album that doesn't open up its pearls of wisdom lightly; it demands your attention to be properly understood and even then will try your patience with jokes, side-trips and there's thirty seconds of your life you'll never get back being told what the word 'motherfucker' means. But Paul's brain ticks away throughout and his unusual abstract sentence structures have just enough meaning and depth for it to be worth you going fishing and attempting to hold on to what he might be telling you. This isn't a 'magic painting' book you can colour in simply by holding up a paintbrush though or even a brass rubbing kit where what was underneath will appear if you put enough elbow grease into finding things out. This is more like a dialogue with the listener, with phrases that will catch the ear switching to those that will leave you scratching your head and which are equal parts nonsense to equal parts poetry, the two parts switching depending on your mood as you play this quizzical, unique record. In our book unique can only be a good thing: an album that sounds completely unlike anything else ever made and structured in a wholly different way will always be so much more interesting than an album that just sounds like its predecessors even if the album is 'bad'; 'Stranger To Stranger' is far from 'bad' : it's brave, daring and way more courageous and contemporary than any seventy-three-year-old has any right to be making. But that doesn't make it 'good' either: 'Stranger' is a lot of work and even after you've put the time in to really understand these songs there are still a handful that sound pretty ordinary. Even after all that 'Stranger' remains an unknown entity, an un-fathomable collection of impenetrable thoughts surrounded by music that would have been incredible had it shared even a millionth of the lyrics' creativity and drive. At the moment I like it a lot less than the last batch of records: the under-rated simplicity of 'You're The One', the newness-with-similarities of 'Surprise' or the uneven but half-terrific emotional outpouring that was 'So Beautiful Or So What?' (though 'Stranger' remains an easier album to love than 'The Capeman'). But while the tick of 'The Clock' marches relentlessly on this fluid album is forever changing and has sounded completely different to me on each one of the ten odd playings I've given it so far. Whose to say that it won't sound like a completely different album by the hundredth? Or the thousandth? Maybe I'll even 'get' it (probably somewhere around the 750th playing I fancy) and Paul will end up looking a lot more clever than I've made him out to be here? Or maybe I'll go to my grave never unlocking the secret to the stranger's door?
Paul keeps his best for first with 'The Werewolf' a delightful exercise in rule-breaking that works better than the other experiments on this album thanks to its witty wordplay and an understanding of how the modern world works that suggests Paul Simon would make a mighty cool uncle/grandad. The werewolf is a common metaphor for the darker side of man and is used well here, starting off with a first verse with a man from Milwaukee 'who made a fairly decent living and had a fairly decent wife' who gets murdered by her for reasons unknown. Paul feels that darker side from everyone, deciding that when we die 'every obit is a mixed review' and that 'a lot of people lose', even people who are used to winning. National debates on 'ignorance and arrogance' sound as if Paul has been watching the 2016 American primaries, which are viewed a success in terms of 'revenues and pay-per-views', with everyone losing the bigger picture of everything that seems to be going wrong. Paul senses the werewolf is near by the end of the song (accompanied by some other-worldly synthesiser howls and some mad Addams Family organ playing) and tries to offer us warnings ('loot for those who can't loot for themselves' is a particularly reckless, yet humanistic line). However no one is listening: the werewolves have the world transfixed and the song ends abruptly with a ring at the doorbell ('Could be the elves!' Paul jokes, in deference to everyone's hope and optimism, but no - we know better, especially as it's late at night with a full moon outside). The world is dark and in dangerous times and all it takes is for one good person to go mad at the right time and it's all over - as Paul points out, it happens all the time. So why aren't we more afraid? Paul keeps the song twisting with an endless cycle of percussion and rhythms, all of them working in counterpart to each other but occasionally meeting up - the result sounds like scatter-gun confusion and chaos, but without a direct concrete threat no one quite knows what to do with this intangible sense of threat. My take (typically Paul isn't speaking and leaves the words to defend themselves or not) is that the werewolf is the last few years' acts of terrorism: intangible and random, nowhere feels sense and the red lights of danger fall everywhere after every attack. It's not like a world war anymore or even a cold war with two superpowers locked into fighting each other - the world feels at war with itself and nowhere is safe, with every boy or girl next door open to radicalisation and pressure and open to be turned into their own particular brand of werewolf regardless or politics or religion. An unsettling opening song, but the comedy cuts through the heavy vibe without turning it facetious or silly.
'Wristband' was the first single and the song Paul's been most likely to play during promotion of the album, gaining some rather mixed reviews. Like much of the album it's got nothing immediately memorable about it and the backing sounds like 'Werewolf' with a bass solo. Perhaps it shouldn't have been the single, but this track is a grower with Paul laughing at the excesses of rockstar stardom his funniest attacks since 'One Trick Pony'. Paul's rock God goes out for a drink and a sneaky tweet, but to his horror finds the security staff won't let him back into play ('But my band is on the bandstand !' he complains comically, all to no avail). The fact that no one recognises the main attraction everyone has come to see speaks volumes about both modern pop and the way it's run and the idea of celebrity culture. Paul is also singing about identity here though and the idea of 'belonging to something other people don't. The song's most successful verse is the last which pulls back from the action and paints a horrid but accurate picture of the modern world: the haves taunt the have-nots and the have-nots respond with anger and mutiny and riots. There are towns that 'never get a wristband' and teenagers whose anger is a 'shorthand' for being told they aren't allowed the access of their peers. Wristbands, a sign of access and VIP suites, have become a sign of the elite and wealthy and telling people that they can't have something is usually an unhealthy state of affairs to be in. For a second song in a row, our world is a mess and we're powerless to change it, with most people in the song not even noticing what's wrong. Expect Paul's narrator of course. You can pretty much safely assume that Paul won't be using wristbands for ID on his latest tour...Paul has fun on the vocal, acting both arrogant and bemused when called on to be the pompous rockstar and serious on the biting final verse. Though the song could have been longer and the structure seems a little weird (this isn't a verse-chorus structure just one long verse with the chorus line sung to the same tune and inserted at random points), this is another strong song you don't need a wristband to enjoy. Nice too to hear Paul returning to his brief love of jazz from the 'Still Crazy After All These Years' era in 1975.
Up next is 'The Clock', a minute long fragment of an instrumental that's nice but rather forgettable. Having come from the last two songs it would make more sense if the clock was threatening, ticking down to our inevitable destruction, but no - this is no bomb but a musical box gently ticking down to a slow fade. It takes a full eighteen seconds of this 1:02 track before you can hear anything but ticking clocks and even after that you can only hear some glockenspiels and chimes very very quietly. It's like listening to something by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop or your neighbour's wind chimes floating over the garden fence in a light breeze. I'm not quite sure what it's doing here either, having been recycled from another project (it's not exactly padding the album out - a nine-track 35 minute album would work just as well as an eleven-track 37 minute one), although it works ok as a non-descript palate changer between two of the album's heavier tracks.
While I'm not quite sure what 'Street Angels' is or what it means, there's no denying it's heavy and packs quite a punch with its eerie unsettling sense of fear and panic despite lasting just two brief minutes. Charlie the Fat Archangel from Graceland seems to be back again, but it's unclear from Paul's lyric whether he's the hero or the villain, spouting slightly profound, slightly egotistical philosophy ('I tell my tale for the toot of it! The tree is bare but the root of it goes deeper than logical reasoning'). Paul's narrator offers him spare change, suggesting he has the homeless in mind, both sides complaining that nobody talks to them much. The angels are given a curious treatment here though, with snarling synthesiser-vocoder grunts that are just beyond natural speech and sound ugly and aggressive. This is all heard on top of a repetitive drum beat that simply won't let go, except for the moments when it's been interrupted by yet more of those ugly synth-grunts, suggesting a world that's inflexible and pre-planned despite the street angel's fluid philosophy. Even by this album's standards this is an ugly and confusing track, but it's rescued to some extent by some typically witty words. The street angel sees God as a fisherman who 'baits his line with prayers and wishes', while the line 'we hide our hearts like holy hostages' plays on so many of Paul's favourite themes at once in a whole new way we haven't heard before (religion, terrorism and 'The Sound Of Silence' style isolation). The ending is particularly obscure though - why is the street angel being rushed away in an ambulance? Is he of fragile and philosophical character doomed to be shattered by an unthinking unyielding universe? Is he the victim of a world that doesn't stop and ask people if they're alright? Was Paul passed by an ambulance just as inspiration was waning on the song? As Neil Young once wrote, an ambulance can only go so fast - it's solving these problems in the first place so they didn't happen that would be a more deserving recipient of our time. Still, for all its deep ideas and concepts this song feels muddled and has perhaps the worst (most missing?) melody of the album to boot.
Title track 'Stranger To Stranger' is an earnest love song to Edie and is perhaps the most lovesick and teenagery we've heard Paul since his Jerry Landis days (when he really was a lovesick teenager). The couple have had an interesting time together since the release of 'So Beautiful Or So What?' to put it mildly: Paul was arrested for assault after being seen to grab Edie's throat during a public argument in 2014 (and after she slapped him first, it's worth pointing out). The story was quickly forgotten after the pair came out together in public to explain that it was nothing except a momentary tiff (sorry, guys, for bringing it up again) but inevitably stirred up all sorts of stories in the press for 24 hours: Paul has a history of relationships with strong women that don't last - was this another? Did he beat up all his lovers? Were the pair about to split up again? For the first half of this song Paul sounds equally unsure, wondering whether if the pair would fall again if their memories were wiped and they met for the first time again and feeling 'jittery' as he wonders why his feelings are such a mess and sighs that he's so emotional 'I can't be held accountable for my actions'. By the chorus though he is sure, big time: the pair belong together, like 'melodies and song' and the chorus finally explodes after three minutes of chugging along with the realisation that 'It's just a way of dealing with my joy!' Paul understand that the flipside of passionate desperate love isn't hate - it's indifference - and he loves his wife just as much during the moments of passionate arguing as when he's pouring his heart out to her. The couple end the song as people who know each other too well and aren't the 'strangers' he starts off fearing they are at all. A strong and revealing lyric then, but where is the tune? Past Paul Simon love songs glide and soar, whether they be 'Kathy's Song' 'Something So Right' or 'Hearts and Bones'. This one is almost as ugly as 'Street Angels', though thankfully without the synthesiser effects, as the melody simply drifts away on a bubbling guitar line, a sleepy saxophone part and an over-noisy drum part that really doesn't fit. You think that the parts are going to coalesce together at some stage (they almost do during the sax solo, but not quite) and the 'younger' Paul more interested in melody than rhythm would no doubt have joined the pieces together better. The end result is a curiously detached sounding song that's actually over-brimming with emotion and may well be this album's biggest 'grower' if only you can get past the whole facelessness of it all.
'In A Parade' is the joker in the pack, as Paul informs us that his head's a lollipop 'and everyone wants to lick it' and that he 'writes his verse for the universe'. It's everything the similarly themes 'Take Me To The Mardi-Gras' from 'Rhymin' Simon' in 1973 isn't: direct, funny, abrupt and cutting, rather than full of longing for a dream that might never pass. Even by this album's standards the lyrics are fairly impenetrable: it starts in a hospital full of 'wounded souls' and only later bursts into the carnival chorus. Oddly Paul links back to the 'Street Angels' lyric as he becomes a teenage hoodlum (the album's best lyric 'I wear a hoodie now to cover my mistakes'), 'medication: seroquel, occupation: street angel'. The track sounds like a cut song from 'The Capeman', with youngsters and outsiders given simultaneously far too much attention (all of it bad) and not enough by half (there's no love and comfort out there in the universe, just noise and spectacle). Paul spent 'Madri-Gras' at least partly wondering what the future might hold, even if it was just trying to figure out what the carnival might look like when it got here; suddenly the carnival and the future is now - and it's a mess, all contrapuntal rhythms and a chorus that randomly asserts itself aggressively into the main song. In short, it's the kind of parade you'd probably want to miss, without any of the warmth and love Paul once imagined. A clever idea to make a song ugly and this song has more right to be unlistenable than most on the album - but it's still largely unlistenable even so.
Remember 'Proof', the song from 'Rhythm Of The Saints' about how faith is 'an island in the setting sun' and nothing less than proof is good enough in the modern age? There's more of the same in 'Proof Of Love' as Paul sits soggily in his own tears wondering if he's really in love and calling out to God for 'proof' that the love is real. To 'us' though, removed from the scene, the narrator is clearly in love (you can't cry buckets of tears for someone and have no feelings for them - it doesn't work out like that). Paul sighs that he's 'beginning again, no easy trick', but the song is ambiguous about whether he's starting over with the same relationship or whether he's moving on to another one. To be fair, perhaps the narrator doesn't know - he's completely muddled about his feelings and the only thing that seems to be clear is his faith. If this was the Paul Simon of even an album ago there wouldn't have been any answer from high above ('Surprise' and, especially, 'So Beautiful Or So What?' are full of songs like these), but unusually there is one: 'Don't be afraid!' Paul's narrator finds his fears soothed away as he's told to embrace simply being alive, to 'feel the sun' and 'drink the rain' and the song ends as darkness, our old friend, is filled with an eternal, scared and healing light. It's as if Paul has taken the depression that once drove him to despair and alienation and turned it into a positive, that even at a time of his life where 'the road is steep and the air is thin' there is something about being alive that makes even the suffering worthwhile. This is a moving lyric and dense enough to deserve the 5:44 running time (making this the longest song on the album by some 70 seconds), but again while the lyrics are compact poetry the melody is meandering, bordering on non-existent. There's a nice and typically Paul Simon guitar flow underpinning the song and a lovely mix of flutes and church bells behind to add to the other-worldly feel of the song, but even these lovely twists are drowned out by over-heavy rhythms and a curious echo-drenched surf guitar that plays in the background like a werewolf trying to enter the door. I don't often say this as Paul's (and certainly Roy's) productions are often the best thing about an album, but this one needs to be lighter on its feet and would make a great choice for a second Paul Simon 'unplugged' set one day.
Proof that this love is for Paul's wife comes with the second liking instrumental, the cleverly titled 'In The Garden Of Edie' (no, not 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' - in fact the two couldn't me further apart, so stop whistling it now). It's more memorable than 'The Clock' and features some nice lyrical 'For Emily' style Paul Simon guitar playing, while some synths shimmer in the far distance and Paul 'oohs' in a lovely falsetto somewhere near the end. It still doesn't amount to a whole lot though - to be honest all the 'work in progress' near-instrumentals that have clogged up Paul Simon CD re-issues all sounded more interesting than this track which just kind of lies there not doing very much. Paul is usually brimming with ideas for his love songs - here he's content simply to sit and stare, perhaps inspired by his wife in their home garden on a summer's day judging by the feel of the track. And was then interrupted by something more interesting, like a picnic or an invasion of wasps or a cuddle or something, or maybe Edie wanted the laundry hanging out or something. Anyway, it's the album's loss.
So far the album has dropped a little in its middle stages, but things pick up a little for the end once again. 'The Riverbank' might not sound much, built on a typical 'Graceland' style guitar riff (nicely played by Vincent Nguini) and performed with this album's customary synth effects, scattershot percussion and lack of a proper chorus. But lyrically it's one of the more satisfying songs on the album, like 'Werewolf' a damning indictment of the dark side of man and how occasionally it can be unleashed on the innocent. Paul was a good friend with a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school in Connecticut where twenty pupils and six members of staff lost their life. Like Paul's better sobering songs about tragic life events though ('He Was My Brother' 'The Late Great Johnny Ace') this isn't mere sensational journalism but a personal how-dare-you attack from someone with his own memories of the school, it's pupils and especially the riverbank where so many students and teachers hid until the shooting was over. Paul never really does 'cross' in the way that so many other songwriters would do it and his voice barely hardens across the track despite talking about the murder of children, but if you know his work then you know he's cross even so. Paul learns the news in the 'dead of the night', worried by the 'tone' of his phone as it beeps late at night. Though it seems that Paul didn't actually attend in person, he imagines himself there as part of the shocked throng of parents, well-wishers and nosey parkers walking past the riverbank and wondering why this school was so 'special', so ill-fated. Paul then imagines the killer, an 'army dude with nowhere to run' and has him walking ever further from the riverbank, a place that in Paul's imagination becomes the primordial soup from which mankind was made and getting ever further away from what mankind was meant to be doing. The result is mayhem, panic and confusion, as the album's restless synthesisers and random percussion unite in an attack on our senses where it feels all too true that there is 'nowhere to run' and no escape from the intensity of emotions that day. Unusually, Paul ends a second song with a hopeful sacred eternal light, though, delivering...something as a triangle of sunshine falls on a place of darkness and sorrow. Probably the best lyric on the album and perhaps the most substantial song here, although the music does rather too good a job of creating chaos and misery.
'Cool Papa Bell' is a slow waddle for an aging baseball player James Thomas Bell, one of the pinups of the black league of baseball players between the 1920s and 1950s and who died at the age of 87 in 1991, a few weeks after his wife Clara. Paul was a huge baseball fan in his youth before music took over (see 'Night Game' from 'Still Crazy After All These Years') with a special soft spot for the man once considered 'the fastest man on Earth' and he seems to have always viewed his childhood heroes with the same eyes, which is why it's so difficult when he sees them age and die. Papa Bell is, like Joe Di Maggio from 'Mrs Robinson', a sign that Paul himself is getting older (a common theme of his 21st century albums) and he sings here that 'everyday I'm here I'm grateful' when so many of his heroes aren't. Paul then wonders whether heaven is 'six trillion light years away' and sighs that 'we're all going to get there one day' before suddenly turning to either himself or his audience and crying 'Not you! You have to stay and explain the suffering', which is as neat a summary of what Paul's been crazy to do all these years as anything he could have written. This song has particular appeal in 2016, released in a year when more names from music and showbiz circles seem to be dying off than ever before as Paul finds himself left behind, a survivor left trying to sum up his generation's hopes and fears as best he can. Rather sweetly, though, this song adds an extra twist to the story of Joe Di Maggio, with Paul taking comfort and inspiration from Papa Bell even in his slower later years as he marched, dignified, to the grave with a joint of chorus of how 'we're never gonna stop!' However, this song also has that weird and controversial verse in the middle about the origins of the word 'motherfucker' which every reviewer of this album seems to have seized upon. It's not that Paul shouldn't be singing the word (as some critics have stated) so much as trying to work out why he's singing about the derivation of the word at all in this song - there's no link to Papa Bell's life story or Paul's own and ends with a couplet that makes even 'Parade' look sane: 'It's not like every rodent gets a birthday cake - no it's 'you're a chipmunk - how cute is that?' while you, you motherfucker, are a dirty rat!' The song's slightly comical walk also makes us wonder just how seriously we should be taking this track: parping horns, laughing guitars and a curious production effect on the very last line (interrupting Paul's word 'no' as if the record's got stuck or iTunes is glitching - take your pick depending on age) all add up to another slightly unsettling song despite more excellent lyrics.
'Insomniac's Lullaby' is the album closer and was the first song written for the album with several themes sketched in that are filled in as full tracks elsewhere on the album. It successfully ties together several of the themes of the album, with Paul crying out to God not to be left behind when so many of his friends get taken away and talk of angels and wolves living side by side. Paul can't sleep so writes another song about the moon, just as he did in 1983 on 'Hearts and Bones', only this time it's not with a young lover's eye but with an elderly questioning gaze. The impending doom is also felt in a verse where Paul discusses that he doesn't matter what long and winding road he took in life - all paths lead to the same river of death 'that comes up to your door' eventually. The sleep Paul longs for, then, isn't simply because he can't sleep - it's because he desperately wants to know what comes next to explain the answers to his questions, while simultaneously not being quite ready to go yet. This is another deep and complex lyric that returns to the deeper themes of the last two albums and cuts a shade darker than anything on the rest of this album barring 'The Riverbank'. However, once again, these lyrics are regrettably wasted on another melody that doesn't really go anywhere. It's a more memorable and less tacky way to close an album than the melodically similar 'Father and Daughter', but it still feels incomplete somehow, another of those songs like 'Quiet' built on a single phrase and kept low-key across its four minutes. The worst thing about 'Insomniac's Lullaby' is that it might just send you to sleep when you're listening to it, even though lyrically it's a song about how we would never sleep again if we really thought about what life was all about and what it might lead to.
Strangers, wolves, street angels - it's an unusual mixture from an artist who doesn't seem as sure as normal about what he wants to convey. At times this album shares 'Surprise's sense of desperate longing and curiosity about mortality. At others it's a religious themed album about faith and big questions as per 'So Beautiful Or So What?' Much of the guitarwork recalls 'Graceland'. Most of the percussion recalls 'Rhythm Of The Saints' (though not quite as well). What strikes you most about 'Stranger', though, is ultimately how unlike every other previous Paul Simon album it sounds. Thanks to a combination of those 'new textures', weird symphonic landscapes, irregular percussion, similar song structure and some of the most downright peculiar songs in Paul's canon, 'Stranger' is a confusing and bewitching album that ultimately remains a stranger, even when you begin to know this album well. The record is simultaneously Paul's deepest and most frivolous, where comedy songs about posing rockstars and nothing fragments of instrumentals sit side by side with deeply serious songs about love, life and death. Sometimes even the same tracks sound as if they're tugging in two different directions at once, as if Paul was singing the words to 'The Sound Of Silence' over the backing track for '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover'. At times this album's a complete mess: tracks like 'Street Angel' and 'In A Parade' stretch your patience more than being asked for your wristband over and over at some club. At other times, as on 'Werewolf' and 'The Riverbank', Paul's tapped into a whole new way of writing that suits him like a glove: brutal yet cultured, jovial yet serious, emotive yet detached. This isn't one of those Paul Simon records that's a favourite from start to finish. It's probably not an album you'll want to play that often at all after the first few hearings (unless you're a fellow reviewer - and after ten straight runs of 'In A Parade' I feel your pain). It's a puzzle why this album - in many ways Paul's ugliest and least commercial album of them all - should become his first number one album (in America at least) in over a quarter century. But 'Stranger' has many lessons to teach and a great deal to learn from if you're patient enough to take the tests and look past the often clumsy surfaces. Like all Paul Simon albums this is a record of true beauty and depth - you might just have to do more digging to find the treasure this time.