Still Paul Simon After All These Years

Other artists in their seventies are going retro, but not Paul Simon, who sounds as creative as ever in his new album, ‘Stranger to Stranger.’

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

What do music megastars above the age of 70 do to juice up their new albums?

Judging by recent releases, they record songs even older than they are. And that’s pretty darn old. In recent weeks, I’ve heard new albums featuring Bob Dylan singing “It Had to Be You” (from 1924), Eric Clapton singing “Alabama Woman Blues” (1930), and Willie Nelson singing “Somebody Loves Me” (1924).

What’s next? Will Mick Jagger join a ragtime band? Is Brian Wilson working with a barber shop quartet? Is Tina Turner planning a Sophie Tucker tribute album? At this rate, Billy Joel will soon go back to his piano man gig, playing old standards in a cocktail lounge.

Yet there’s some wisdom behind this phenomenon. Retro is hot nowadays. And I can’t blame these artists for following the conventional wisdom in the entertainment field: namely, if you’re younger than your setting, you don’t look quite so old.

Apparently, no one told Paul Simon this.

He’s just released an album filled with fresh, exciting new songs. Stranger to Stranger is one of the best albums I’ve heard this year, and it makes no concessions to prevailing trends, retro or otherwise. Simon instead continues to pursue the dominant vision that has guided him since his huge success with Graceland, 30 years ago, when he married the poetry of the singer-songwriter craft with the rhythmic inspiration of world music stylings.

Some have called this cultural appropriation, but I’m not one of those people who wants to erect Trump-like walls between musical cultures. If I listed my favorite musical works from the last 150 years, most of them would involve shameless fraternizing between different aural perspectives. If they ever set up a border patrol to stop this give-and-take, I will dig a big underground tunnel and smuggle these rhythms and textures under the wall.

Simon is a master of this global trade in musical memes, and his willingness to learn from different idioms is evident on track after track on his new album. No offense to Art Garfunkel, but Simon took a huge leap forward musically when he started drawing on a wider range of musical collaborators. Discerning ears will pick up a kaleidoscope of influences on his latest offering, including bits of flamenco, gospel, African talking drum, Harry Partch’s microtonal music, Indian percussion (check out the gopichand on “The Werewolf”), and other offerings from the global jukebox, occasionally spiced up with current-day commercial elements of hip-hop and EDM.

On the other hand, Simon isn’t doing himself any favors by not giving sufficient credit to his accompanists. This has stirred up controversy in the past—the band Los Lobos even accused Simon of song theft (although member Steve Berlin admitted “I don’t know if we could have proven in a court of law, at the end of the day, that he stole it”).

On my first hearing of Stranger to Stranger, I didn’t know the names of the band members, and couldn’t find them on Simon’s website or in media articles on the album. Yet the very first thing that struck me about this music was the supporting cast, which plays with such an irresistible groove that Simon could be singing the radio traffic report and still grab an audience’s ears.

Not many people pay attention to accompanists nowadays. Who can blame them? In many cases, it’s a software package doing the heavy lifting in the background. But that’s never been the case with Paul Simon. No pop star of his generation has been more creative in finding unconventional accompanists, or more flexible in adapting his personal vision to different aural traditions.

And what did I learn when I eventually got my hands on detailed album notes? Jack DeJohnette, a legend in jazz circles, is credited as drummer on “The Riverbank.” Nico Muhly, one of the hottest contemporary classical composers, plays celeste and orchestra bells and arranges the horns on some tracks. The Golden Gate Quartet provides background vocals on “Street Angel.” Jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon makes an appearance on “Proof of Love.” Carlos Henriquez, a bassist who has played with Wynton Marsalis, does killer work throughout this album. Check out “Wristband,” my favorite track on the album, and savor how he shines, bringing the pulse to life and allowing Simon to float over the beat with a semi-spoken chant.

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Let’s give these musicians their due!

Okay, Simon is undoubtedly the star here, and even as the sounds and moods shift, every work bears his personal stamp. He’s a superlative storyteller, as demonstrated on songs such as “The Werewolf,” where a woman murders her husband with a sushi knife, or “Wristband,” about a music star who can’t get through security to get onstage at a concert. Listening to these tracks, I could easily imagine an alternative life in which Paul Simon had written movie screenplays or short stories or narrative poems. He hasn’t lost the knack, even at age 74.

But I have a gripe here, and it’s the same one I’ve felt about Simon’s work for many years. He is awfully clever, he is very poetic—I will even call him bloody brilliant—but he is far too guarded about expressing his emotions and opening up his inner life. The singer-songwriter movement was built on intimate revelation. That’s what fans craved, that’s what they still pay their money to experience. Simon has refused to play that game.

You will never hear him approach the raw openness of, say, a Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake. With very few exceptions, Paul Simon has written songs as though he were presenting characters in a musical, or crafting some colorful public persona. Make a new plan, Stan; don’t try to be coy, Roy, etc. etc. I admire his skill at this, I bow at his bard-like powers. But I have always wanted a little something more. I’ve always wanted to get beyond “Rhymin’ Simon” and get to meet Paul.

That’s still true on Stranger to Stranger. When I saw that a song on the album, “In the Garden of Edie,” was about his wife, Edie Brickell, I hoped for a public expression of the couple’s coming together after their highly-publicized spat in 2014, when police came to the Simon residence and arrested both parties. Much to my disappointment, the song is mostly an instrumental, supporting a brief wordless vocal. Yet I wasn’t surprised. That’s Simon’s way. How sad that this incomparable singer-songwriter can’t find words to express the closest relationship in his life.

So I accept Simon at what he does well—which is to play his chameleon game with poetry and grace, and accompanied by some of the hottest musicians in the world. He’s done it again with Stranger to Stranger, and I will enjoy my repeated listening. But here’s one suggestion: maybe next time, Paul, try being a little less of a stranger.