First Listen: Paul Simon, 'Stranger To Stranger'
When we first meet the Street Angel, three tracks into Paul Simon's new Stranger To Stranger, he uses a bebop riff to describe what he does. "I make my verse for the universe ... I write my rhymes for the universities, and I give it away for the hoot of it ... A tree is bare, but the root of it goes deeper than logical reasoning." No one talks to this person, so Simon, longtime champion of underdogs, lends a sympathetic ear. Naturally, he discovers not just a homeless person, but a thinking man, a soul prone to reflection.
A few songs later, this character returns as the star of a drama in some unlucky ER. There's a boisterous carnival groove with lots of percussion — the soundtrack of a celebration in his head? Riding atop this pulse is an anxious mantra: "I can't talk now / I'm in a parade." This could be the Street Angel jabbering into a make-believe phone, or a medical professional's jargon for peak ER traffic; either way, the phrase grows more surreal with each repetition. Soon enough, reality intrudes. Simon switches his voice to monotone to evoke the procedural call-and-response of official paperwork:
Occupation: Street Angel
When the parade roars back up again, it's newly chaotic, more defiant and weird. We're never quite sure what's happening inside this character's head, or what's occurring out in the world. We're also unclear about what happens: Does he survive to rhyme another day? Or is the Angel destined for the queue in heaven's waiting room, a place Simon sketched brilliantly in "The Afterlife" from 2013's So Beautiful Or So What?
The slight "In A Parade" has much less description than "The Afterlife"; it's more dramatic vignette than deep commentary. But its portrayal of that fine line between madness and genius is startlingly visceral — it's a scene, a slice, a rendering of mental imbalance from deep within the maelstrom in progress; one that makes no judgment and draws no conclusions.
That's pretty much the game throughout Stranger To Stranger, Simon's 13th solo album. It's more opaque than Simon's recent works, less forthright and declarative, less locked onto linear tracks. Its tales unfold in shards and mumbled asides, oddly unsettling repeated phrases and strange prophecies. These don't always seem haunting at the start, but they become that way — as the details fill in, or don't, as Simon's telegraphic shorthand implies multiple meanings. You can't read the lyrics to these songs and expect to "get" them; you have to surrender to the slurpy backward vocals, the sharp crack of drumsticks, the whole experience.
Contrasting the unspoken tremors of interior life with the outside world's endless parade of diversions, Simon sounds like someone who's given up trying to force the scattered message-bombardment of daily life into an orderly narrative. This should be liberating, but no weight has been lifted from his shoulders; abandoning the business of parsing life's big mysteries has brought him no peace. In the title track, he talks about being jittery and explains it by saying, "It's just a way of dealing with my joy" — and you don't immediately believe him, because everything around him sounds like a somber elegy. Forget joy; nothing in the audio landscape suggests so much as a wan obligatory smile, let alone the jitters.
Most of the time, the jitters live in and travel happily through the musical accompaniment, lifting the upbeat lyrics and animating the dour ones. Since at least Graceland, Simon has built his songs around specific rhythms — or short, Morse-code-like rhythmic phrases that acquire their power through churning repetition and subtle variation. Some of these are descended from funk or gospel: The trance pulse of "Wristband," which evokes a memorable scene from Birdman, celebrates the simmering tension of '70s cop-show soundtracks. Elsewhere, Simon weaves trace elements of rhythms from around the world into music that's deep and powerful yet somehow not self-consciously "global." It's not easy to connect the relentless whomp of samba to the nimble-fingered chop of flamenco guitar to the chatter of salsa's metallic percussion, but Simon makes it sound that way. This herding of disparate ideas into a cohesive whole has become one of his enduring sonic signatures — pop as a language of exuberant dances and polyrhythmic upheavals.
As inventive as these tapestries are, there's a quiet sense here that Simon, composer of hundreds of profound and enduring songs, is battling himself and his catalog every time he sits down to write. Simon discussed this in a recent interview with Bob Boilen for All Songs Considered, suggesting that he may now seek creative outlets beyond music. And he refers to his artistic struggle in the enigmatic title track: "Most of the time it's just hard, working the same piece of clay day after day, year after year." This confession comes after he's described his work in a series of short, almost dismissive disconnected lines — first "words and melodies," then "easy harmonies," followed by the sad clincher, "old-time remedies."
Even within the few Stranger To Stranger songs that hearken back to moods and chord sequences Simon has used before, there's no rewriting going on. His music still pulses with the feeling of invention; he's still discovering new ways to communicate, new percussive beats, challenging new frameworks for observations about joy, death and everything in between. These new songs are not as easily parsed as "Bridge Over Troubled Water," but that doesn't mean they're not as artful. They're just remedies and salves of a different sort. They're just the isolated vision-bursts and flashes of clarity that sometimes occur when you look up and realize you're trapped in the middle of a parade.
Album now streaming: http://www.npr.org/2016/05/26/478834628/first-listen-paul-simon-stranger-to-stranger