To Paul Simon’s credit, he knows what he’s up against. The singer-songwriter with decades of fame in his rearview recently told Rolling Stone, “To get people to listen with open ears, you have to really make something that is interesting because people are prepared for it not to be interesting.” Comfortably into his seventies and already the multiple recipient of the sorts of lifetime achievement awards that imply creative ossification, Simon can either approach a new album as a listless valediction or a chance to prove something. On Stranger to Stranger, he opts for the latter.
Striving for the new doesn’t mean Simon is entirely able to shake loose the old. Or maybe he doesn’t really intend to. Evolution isn’t about wholesale change, after all. It’s about retaining what works and adapting the rest into something better, stronger, more enduring. Album opener “The Werewolf” establishes the sonic terrain: exploratory tones, easygoing absurdity in the lyrics, and the world music echoes Simon has been employing since the still spectacular Graceland, released thirty years ago. It’s bendy and odd, building its tricky hook on repetition without evident interest in melody. Tempting as it may be to impose heavy import on the mortality-mulling lyrics “The fact is most obits are mixed reviews/ Life is a lottery, a lotta people lose,” there’s ultimately little indication that such concerns truly preoccupy Simon. Instead, it comes across as though he’s feeling his way to truths beyond the literal. Themes are subconscious happenstance.
Simon’s urge to wander brings him into the lanes of rough peers both disparate and expected. “Street Angel” recalls like Lou Reed’s goofier street poetry from the nineteen-eighties, and “In a Parade” has some of the stripped-down, rhythm-wracked exuberance of David Byrne’s most casually freewheeling solo work. If the music sometimes gets too lax (“Proof of Love,” drippy album closer “Insomniac’s Lullaby”), the overall vibe is nicely spirited and alive to the woozy possibilities of complexity (“Cool Papa Bell” sounds like three or four already loony songs smashed irreverently into one). Stranger to Stranger isn’t perfect. It’s arguably not even in the neighborhood of greatness, at least not in the same way of the splendid albums Hearts and Bones or Rhythm of the Saints. Simon achieved his clearly stated goal, though. It’s interesting.