I irritated some friends this week by opening a conversation, “Is Paul Simon the worst great songwriter, or the best terrible songwriter?” Of course, it would be silly to call him terrible, the now–74-year-old creator of so many classic songs. But like a lot of people, I think, I’m put off by some vague irritant even when I’m enjoying Simon’s music. There is the industry gossip about him being unpleasant to people (up to and including Art Garfunkel), but that’s not what I mean. It’s closer to one friend’s feeling that Simon’s performances are “covered in film,” as if a thin plastic wrapper prevented them from touching her. Others brought up Billy Joel as a more egregious case. But if that similarly mouthy and doo-wop–preoccupied fellow East Coaster is more ham-handed than Simon, at least he can revel in his schlocky humanity, making him fit for karaoke bars where a Simon song would stiff.
Simon has written loads of songs that make me flash like a strobe light or puddle like sweet custard. But as I’ve been reminded by many moments on his impressive new album, Stranger to Stranger, others turn me sour and wary. It’s the voice and lyrics—almost never the reliable sonics, beats, and melodies. It’s been true from the sententious poetry smushed into “Sounds of Silence” and the feel-good flim-flammery of the “feelin’ groovy” song on to today, though he’s a much more able and subtle writer now than he was during the Simon and Garfunkel era. (Witness metal band Disturbed’s recent popular cover of “The Sound of Silence,” which quadruples down on its pomposity and thus fulfills its destiny.)
Hearts and Bones in 1983 was the Simon album I first really fell for; it persuaded me as an opinionated tween that he wasn’t all leftover ’60s hokum. He was expressing further-out interests—imagining surrealist painter Réné Magritte and his wife as lovers of doo-wop groups, for instance—and more specific insights, as he does on the pained but finally generous title track about his then-dissolving marriage to Carrie Fisher. It was also his biggest flop. (It does include dreck like “Allergies” and the dazzlingly dumb “Cars Are Cars.”) Its commercial failure was what freed him from his long slip-side through ’70s singer-songwriter postures to operate more on curiosity and instinct, which led him to Graceland.
That landmark, whose 30th anniversary approaches this summer, is of course a knotty masterpiece. It drags behind it a tangle of debates about Simon’s violation of the South African cultural boycott and “world music” cultural appropriation, in which I come out ultimately pro-Simon, but with lingering misgivings about the limited ways he shared credit (and royalties). A more internal distraction is the way its lyrics careen between innovative verbal collages and that old flim-flammery. “The Boy in the Bubble” and “Graceland” are gasp-inducing panoramas. But as uplifting as the music is, the verses of “You Can Call Me Al” (that college-campus favorite, still Simon’s most-played tune on Spotify) and “I Know What I Know” (“Don’t I know you from the cinematographer’s party?”) are full of the glib signifiers and tossed-off condescension that with Simon too often pass for wit.
Cutting the tether of Garfunkel’s fuzzy blond harmonies gave Simon space throughout the 1970s to develop a more original voice: conversational, urbane but uncomfortable, and capable of being caught off-guard by its own emotions—the musical parallel of the period’s finer Woody Allen movies. (Simon had a cameo in Annie Hall, in fact, albeit as a cardboard jerk.) But that looseness allows for a lot of “observational” guff, such that sometimes Simon might as well be rhymin’, “Darling, are you in the mood?” with “What’s the deal with airline food?” At his strongest, he flips acrobatically between modes, from colorful snapshots and wordplay to arch skepticism to romantic poignancy. At his weakest, he garburates them.
In its compact 37 minutes, Stranger to Stranger includes some of each. It comes five years after So Beautiful or So What, a record that rippled with strings and bells, and unexpected questions about God, and was acclaimed as his most satisfying listen since 1990’s The Rhythm of the Saints. This one is more scattered in its themes (though mortality and morality remain touchstones), and it’s built much more on percussion and texture. While the yields are spottier, Simon’s not coasting. In the title tune (an unfortunately undynamic love song), he sings about working the same block of clay for years and years—a metaphor for both music and marriage—and the detailing of these sculptures is exquisite.
Reading the long lists of instruments on many tracks, one might expect clutter, but often a chime or a rumble or a wash arises to accent a passing moment or chord, then vanishes when its role is fulfilled. A groove from one song might return in another in slow motion or backward. As a demonstration of the popular recording arts, Stranger to Stranger is a master class, even in the age of digital hook wizards like Max Martin. And while its perspective is curmudgeonly, it’s not out-of-touch—Simon works with Italian Afro-house producer Clap! Clap! and brilliant young new-music composer Nico Muhly, as well as veteran jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, and many others.
My favorite device on many tracks is the use of flamenco clapping and stomping as lead percussion, which Simon incorporates without trying to take listeners on any bogus adventure to Seville. There’s also, on “Street Angel,” a sample from the great jubilee gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet, scrambled and fried into a vocal abstraction that’s almost like a turntable scrub, a garbled chorus that undercuts the proclamations of the homeless character who dominates the lyrics.
I wonder if that figure is a sidelong tribute to Harry Partch, the eccentric American microtonal composer whose store of exotic invented instruments appears later on the album. Partch was famous partly for material that drew on his experiences among Depression-era hobos. In the early 1980s, Tom Waits drew inspiration from Partch’s jerry-rigged chemistry-lab–castoff and scrap-metal sound engines to switch from piano crooning to hammering on car parts, marimbas, and parade drums with Swordfishtrombones. Simon’s band puts Partch’s “cloud-chamber bowls,” “harmonic canon,” “chromelodeon,” and “zoomoozophone” to much less radical use, mainly for resonantly “off” undertones that wend through the gorgeous closer “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” which includes some of the album’s loveliest lyrics.
That said, Simon’s whole concept of “street angels” and treatment of mental illness here—the character returns in “I’m in a Parade” being diagnosed in an emergency room as schizophrenic and rambling “my head is a lollipop and everyone wants to lick it”—verges on poor-taste slumming.
Such occasions to wince recur several times, a reminder of the gringo-on-safari suspicions around Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints. It’s tricky for any millionaire rock star to sing credibly about social injustice (I refer you to U.K. band Hefner’s lost gem “Gabriel in the Airport”), but it’s exacerbated by Simon’s way of merging those concerns with his own stream-of-consciousness goof-offs and often exaggeratedly wry vocal delivery. His class blinders, and assumption of his entitlement to teleport into any situation, are close to the heart of his gaucheness—I love “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” as much as the next Sesame Street tyke, but it requires overlooking what seems to be his cringe-worthy imitation of a Latino kid’s street dialect.
Likewise, on this album, “Wristband” (one of the tracks that came out in advance) offers an inviting tapestry of claps, electronics, bass, and horns that makes it easy to shrug off the lyrics about Simon getting locked out of his own concert by an obtuse security guard because he’s missing his backstage pass. Easy, that is, until it tries to go widescreen meaningful about dispossessed communities rising up because they don’t have the societal equivalent of a wristband. It almost works—for a second. But then you remember you’ve just been listening to several verses of Simon basically singing “Don’t you know who I am?” and it all collapses into a mess of elderly-relative email forwards.
Opening track “The Werewolf” is even more sonically seductive, almost pure percussion and atmospherics, and its central image about a “werewolf” who’s coming to punish an avaricious society is a nice balance of cheese and meat. But it’s set up by Simon’s portrait of a “Milwaukee man” who “made a fairly decent living/ had a fairly decent wife” who then kills her husband with a sushi knife—through the attempted humor, it’s dripping with disdain for this Midwestern consumerist couple and, later, the wealthy who “eat all the nuggets and order extra fries.” Making fun of such schmucks while seemingly exempting himself from the retribution is chronic Simon syndrome. From his perch, it’s hard for him to punch any which way but down.
Still, most of the songs succeed in spite of these stumbles. What Simon is getting at about trauma, war, and (perhaps) school shootings in “The Riverbank” is oblique, but the shuffling tension of the music and the tumbling phrases (“Army dude/ Only son/ Nowhere to run/ No one to turn to/ He turns to the gun/ It’s a cross/ It’s a stone/ It’s a fragment of bone/ It’s a long walk home”) click an appropriate mood into place. What’s going on with the appearance of the Negro League player “Cool Papa Bell” on the track of that title, alongside a tattooed guy called “Mr. Wall-to-Wall Fun,” a discourse on the word motherfucker, images of chipmunks getting birthday cakes, and the discovery of the location of Heaven “6 trillion light-years away”? Something about the unfairness of fate—but anyway, with its rolling mix of Latin rhythms and township-jive guitar, it’s a motherfucker of a ride.
Overall, Stranger to Stranger is so concise and offers so damn much to hear in its brief course that Simon’s foibles don’t have a chance to overwhelm the enjoyment. If you have any fondness for him it’s worth your attention, and that’s saying a lot for an artist six decades into his career. Yet, I still puzzle over the core of my love-hate relationship with him.
As a rule, I’m impatient with claims about anyone’s artistic “sincerity,” a kind of magical aesthetic mind-reading that ignores that songs are inherently artificial, make-believe constructs. Their effects on us have more to do with turns of melody and phrase and rhythm than with whatever personal experiences informed them. Awful songs are written every day out of deeply felt joy or sorrow, and great ones from just aiming for a hit (Motown, Beatles, etc.). Songs are spinning wheels that weave feelings. But one of those generated sensations is a perception of sincerity, an impression of engagement, a psychological illusion that maybe the Germans have a word for. It’s subjective as hell, obviously. Plenty of people get that buzz from Simon with no “film” fouling up the connection. But it does seem like his least consistent skill. That might be null if he were making dance-floor hits, but it matters for crafting interior monologues and musical mini-dramas.
Alternatively, we Simon skeptics might simply say he inclines to smugness. Or that, for all his talent, he is more clever than he is wise. As the worst great songwriter himself sang on Hearts and Bones, “Maybe I think too much for my own good … Other people say, ‘No no/ The fact is/ You don’t think as much as you could.’ ”