Paul Simon's just made what may be the boldest album ever by a star in his 70s. Stranger To Stranger is more proof that he's still crazily good after all these years
Paul Simon Stranger To Stranger Concord Music, out Friday
What are you supposed to do as a rock star in old age? That is the question now faced by several all-time greats.
Bob Dylan has just released a second successive album of songs once sung by Frank Sinatra, which has left even his diehard fans less than electrified.
Paul McCartney is about to give us a four-disc compilation of his post-Beatles work – better than he is given credit for, if not quite as good as he’d like to think – which will be doing well to stay in the charts for more than a week.
The Rolling Stones, after making a rather middling exhibition of themselves in London, are working on their first album in 11 years (don’t hold your breath).
Although Paul Simon is now 74, his singing voice barely registers the passing of the decades and his muse is clearly still hungry after all these years
All these living legends are still touring, which is where the money is nowadays, but the price they pay for that is that it points them to past glories.
They seldom even attempt the thing that made their names in the first place: forging ahead. Which is why Paul Simon’s new album is a landmark.
Stranger To Stranger is the boldest record ever made by a star on the wrong side of 70.
It starts as it means to go on, with a funny noise – a twang that is more like a twanggggggggg, played on a gopichand, an Indian instrument with a single string and sides made of bamboo, which can be squeezed to bend the note.
The effect is a ghostly howl, and the track it heralds is called The Werewolf.
The lyrics begin by telling the quirky tale of a married couple (‘she killed him – sushi knife’) before turning into a protest song about the wealthy, with their ‘money-coloured eyes’, grabbing more and more of the pie.
With its minimal instrumentation and deliciously thwacky rhythm, the whole thing feels like the blues of the future. It’s all a long way from Mrs Robinson.
The tone has been set for an album that is packed with crunchy rhythms and sparky ideas. Every song is written by Simon, alone, but as ever he draws on a world of inspiration.
Stranger To Stranger is a landmark album, packed with crunchy rhythms and sparky ideas. Every song is written by Simon, alone, but as ever he draws on a world of inspiration
‘I’m a wanderer,’ he told The New York Times recently. ‘So much of this record is about just going there to see – what is it, what can you learn?’
If he’s still learning at 74, so are his fans. Many will have their first encounter here with the name Clap! Clap!, credited on three tracks.
He sounds like a chain of playgroups but is actually an Italian whose party trick is blending African field recordings with electronic dance music.
On four tracks, the rhythms are built on hand claps from a group of Flamenco musicians.
On at least one, Simon draws on the collection of Harry Partch, the pioneering music theorist who reckoned octaves could be broken down into 43 tones, rather than the usual 12, and built instruments to prove it.
All this could be exhausting but Simon is alive to the danger. His own fingerprints are all over the title track, a wistful love song, and Proof Of Love, a secular hymn, plus a couple of numbers that gleam with the African guitars of Graceland.
‘He trusts himself and he pushes himself,’ his friend and fellow composer Philip Glass told The New York Times. ‘If one part of that equation isn’t there, then you’re in trouble.’
In pushing himself, Simon engages with music by younger people. He has mentioned Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, the two hip-hop stars who are most interested in playing with texture.
Lamar has now done a unique double, having also influenced David Bowie’s Blackstar. A good ear is an ear that stays open.
The album is produced by another good ear, Simon’s old friend Roy Halee, dragged out of retirement at 82, but the sound – rhythmic, elastic, eclectic – bears the stamp of today.
Wristband, a deft allegory of social exclusion, runs on a fabulously rubbery, 21st-century bassline.
Simon’s singing voice barely registers the passing of the decades; it just gets deeper, 1/43rd of an octave at a time.
His muse is still hungry after all these years. From a man who has made many great albums, here is one more.
Paul Simon is on tour Nov 3-12
THIS WEEK'S CD RELEASES
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