Thirty years after Graceland ushered in a phenomenal second act for the already-revered 60s folk hero, 74-year-old Paul Simon remains a class act on the move.
There is a constancy to his melodic voice but his albums probe tonal frequencies as though he were a much younger digital wunderkind.
At the moment, the singer says, his focus is more on sounds than lyrics. “When words desert me,” he sings on the oscillating reverie Proof of Love, “music is the tongue I speak.” Stranger to Stranger, Simon’s 13th solo LP, opens with the twang of a gopichand, a one-string eastern diddly bow modulated by its flexible neck. Its sound, to Simon, recalled the word “werewolf”. Shakers and gourds set the pace; Simon’s vocal is playful. The words turn out to be pivotal, though – here and throughout.
You barely notice the process, but Simon’s equable observations gradually reveal a murder by sushi knife, and a fanged critique of the impending breakdown of civilisation. The rich “eat all the nuggets/ and they order extra fries,” sings Simon. “The werewolf” is coming to devour them in turn.
As well as this “shitstorm” of a reckoning, Stranger to Stranger shimmies through schizophrenia, the word “motherfucker”, privilege (on the excellent anecdote-turned-polemic Wristband), and insomnia, with a familiar mixture of compassion and humour. But Simon is even more sonically restless than usual: microtonal variations say so much.
Naturally, African analogue instrumentation is high in the mix – In a Parade, a parable set in a hospital, is particularly west African in feel – but there are Italian digitals too, in the form of a Florentine producer sometimes known as Digi G’alessio and no little looped flamenco handclapping. In addition, Simon tracks down fresh chromatic shades in the recherché instruments invented by musical theorist Harry Partch. The fun-to-pronounce zoomoozophone is just as nuts as it sounds, a Heath-Robinsoneque contraption invented by a Partch acolyte.
All this gleeful methodology never overshadows the songs. Cool Papa Bell is blithe echo-chamber pop that recalls Vampire Weekend, who got started by channelling Graceland. On the surface, it’s named for a legendary black baseball player. But Simon articulates his own “bogus new-age bullshit point of view”: he is grateful just to be here. And besides, check out his tattoo. “Says wall-to-wall fun,” smirks Simon.
The album-closing Insomniac’s Lullaby drops the wisecracking and returns to Simon’s native folk song. As a guitar gently weeps, the author of Bridge Over Troubled Water wonders, when the floodwaters rise, “How will the builder of bridges deliver us to the faraway shore?”
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