Paul Simon’s new concept album Stranger To Stranger is a complex juxtaposition of styles and influences in a musical discussion of the differences between organized western religion, group spirituality, and untamed mysticism. Simon brings us on a schizophrenic tour of musical traditions and cultural references namely from the old American South, Brazil, and Africa. Here we start a walking tour in which I’ve pointed out recurring elements and themes on a song-by-song basis to provide a roadmap for you to draw your own conclusions on your first listen. I think of a lot of these songs as partners and call-and-responses to each other. If you’re skipping around, some partners are:
“The Werewolf”, “Proof Of Love”, and “Insomniac’s Lullaby”
“Wristband”, “Street Angel”, and “In A Parade”
“The Clock”, “Proof of Love”, “In The Garden of Edie”, and “Guitar Piece 3”
“Stranger To Stranger” and “Insomniac’s Lullaby”
Paul Simon wastes no time in letting listeners know this album is going to be a little weird. A little experimental. Very symbolic. So okay, we were ready for that, Paul Simon. But thanks for the reminder. The first sound we encounter is (if Jon Gomm has taught me anything, and I’ve guessed correctly) is a single guitar string being pulled wildly in and out of tune, accompanied by a howling wolf. The connection is evident. In comes some heavy but lively percussion in the form of hand drums, claps, and shakers. Despite Simon’s usual affinity for complicated, staggered rhythms, the percussion here is very square and assertive. Some classic Paul Simon vocalizations join the wolf howls. This song is a good foreshadowing for the new style we’re about to experience. Drones are introduced here, to become a motif throughout the rest of the album. A southern sound emerges from the stomping rhythms and slide guitar. Suddenly: 80’s synth hits morph into church organs? A distinctly major sound grows into an ominous, thundering minor, and the song fades out with the sound of a gong. Paul Simon has now introduced: The major musical elements he’ll be toying with, his theme of schizophrenia, and the various religious references he bounces back and forth between. All this without warning. A wonderful and effective first track. Only regret: I wish he’d called it The Chupacabra.
The second track is another one featuring sound effects, this time of foreign and segmented voices, accompanied by a jazzy upright bass and groovy, light percussion together in a vaguely latin strut. For the first twenty seconds I would swear I was listening to the Books. “Wristband” is a very linear experience with not a lot going on in terms of vertical harmonies. Vocal harmonies are very simplified, often completely polyphonic, and the song takes an interesting turn when Simon scats in unison with a trumpet.
Probably my favorite piece on the album for its simple elegance and bone-vibrating low range. The ticking of a clock provides a metronomic beat for a guitar ostinato, incredibly low bass, glittering chimes, and a curious atonal melody. The full lows and delicate highs create a beautiful dreamlike juxtaposition calmly over an unchanging beat. “The Clock” is atmospheric with great presence.
After the calm of “The Clock”, “Street Angel” is a little surprising. This unique mix features a pitched-down verison of Simon’s own voice and background vocals in a call and response that sound like they were borrowed from an old southern folk recording. A slide guitar sneaks back in and the straightforward percussion is eventually augmented with some hand drums for a little extra groove. Church bells are introduced as a motif. This song is mostly spoken, featuring curious but captivating rhymes like “I write my verse for the Universe.” Some direct references to this come up in “In A Parade.”
Stranger To Stranger
The title track takes a more atmospheric slant than the beginning of the album. Muted acoustic-electric vamps provide texture to an ambient drone phasing in and out, and jazzy percussion turns into something more organic, with distinct “attic” reverb. Wind instruments are introduced on this track in the form of a mysterious wandering flute, and a horn solo that hints more towards latin influences, which finally come out in the next track. The emotional impact of “Stranger To Stranger” is an off-balance juxtaposition of anxiety, especially in the percussion and creepy vamps, and reassurance in the wind instruments, vocal melodies, and overall warm timbres.
In A Parade
The latin flavors march through in full force in the samba titled “In A Parade”. “Street Angel” is referenced in the lyrics, “Occupation: Street Angel” and, again, “I write my verse for the Universe.” “In A Parade” is full of actual street sounds like whistles and an isolated alarm sound from what I’d guess is an ambulance, since “the ER” is referenced in the opening lyrics. While it’s a subtler reference, it’s still one I’d consider deliberate. While it’s been fairly obvious that Simon’s been building up a dense juxtaposition, the lyrics “Diagnosis: Schizophrenia” confirms that this is something more than his characteristic blend of styles. For the first time, the concept fully came together for me. The first half of the album was spent building it, the second will be spent confirming it.
Proof Of Love
“Proof Of Love” is the longest song on Stranger To Stranger, and an answer to “The Clock”. It’s in the same vaguely atonal key, which I would call A aeolian. Most of the themes on this album are melted together surprisingly harmoniously in “Proof Of Love”, from tireless guitar vamping, flute wanderings and tremolos, church bells and chimes, and finally a turn from a mysterious dream style to that of an old American southern spiritual. In this section, Simon mentions the hallucinogenic belladonna and quotes “Silent Night”. The moveable pitch string solo echoes the fluid tuning techniques from “The Werewolf”. The claps from the first track reappear in the last thirty seconds.
In The Garden Of Edie
An almost-instrumental interlude featuring some lovely Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar interrupts two southern spirituals. A drone phases in the background from an instrument I couln’t place, but after a hint from the deluxe cut, I would imagine come from gently dragging beads around Tibetan singing bowls. The effect is a metallic fluttering that echoes and juxtaposes the more assertive ostinatos heard consistently throughout the album. Another drone in the context of the rest of the album, could subtly hint at a train whistle. The delicate, tiny ambient sound of the high drones and guitar harmonics provide a nice contrast from the full-bodied guitar. This piece has more tonality than “The Clock” and “Proof Of Love” but still fluctuates dreamily between distinctly major and minor keys. I don’t even need to point out the clearly religious title with a twist, but I will, because I love how obviously he sticks to the theme.
“The Riverbank” is upbeat, dark, and fun, with the most enticing groove on the album. The clapping returns with slightly dirty electric slide guitar and a call and response between Simon and a chorus. This song includes my favorite lyrics on the album: “It’s a cross, it’s a stone, it’s a fragment of a bone. It’s a long walk home” (“Águas de Março”, anyone?). More fluttering drones appear with chimes.
Cool Papa Bell
This song feels like the last on the album, maybe because it feels like a return to a more recognizable Paul Simon style. This penultimate song is light and joyful. Key elements that straddle the assertion and joyfulness are: a tuba, and Simon repeating “motherfucker”. I love both of them. The song fades out almost identically to “Diane Young”, strengthening the frankly wonderful connection I always see between Paul Simon and Vampire Weekend, specifically magnified in “Cool Papa Bell”. (Collaboration please?? See also: “Unbelievers”, Vampire Weekend’s incredible take on a similar question about the indelicacies of religion.)
The real last track on the album, is a gentle waltz with frequent sections of free tempo. A siren intervenes and reminds me of “In A Parade”. Some pitch-shifted electric guitar rife in overtones bring a crisp timbre that I wish I’d heard more of earlier in the album. Despite the gentleness of the composition, a piling-on of mildly dissonant elements creates a nearly-violent mood that comes and goes. Bird calls close the album as wolf calls opened it. (Incidentally, the lyric “all is forgiven and wolves become sheep” occurs in “Insomniac’s Lullaby”.)
Horace and Pete
“Horace and Pete” starts as a fingerpicked acoustic guitar meditation of block chords with delicate vocalizations. It’s a sweet and simple song with free tempo and really not that much to talk about. It’s just nice.
Duncan – Live From A Prairie Home Companion
Travis picking appears for the first time this album, which feels absolutely tragic considering the southern folk influences, but I’m mostly just happy to have it. With mandolin and beautiful pentatonic violin melodies, “Duncan” sounds like an old British ballad. Curiously, it still ends with a dark guitar riff matching the theme of the American South.
Wristband – Live From A Prairie Home Companion
This song makes more sense to me in it’s lighter and more mellow incarnation at A Prairie Home Companion. It’s nice to hear the audience laugh at the lyrics, which were, upon my first encounter, a little too silly for my taste.
Guitar Piece 3
“Guitar Piece 3” is when I excitedly recognized the Tibetan singing bowls, along with other jangly percussion and chimes. The presence of the guitar is essential, but it mostly acts as a drone. The melody of the piece comes from pitched train sounds (which make me more confident in my powers of deduction in “The Garden Of Edie”). It’s another nice meditation piece, and I think it does great things for contextualizing other things we heard previously.
New York Is My Home
The last track is a little more intense and dark than the other bonus tracks, and most notably features some didgeridoo and singer Dion. At the mention of a gospel chorus, a chorus is sampled. The verses are decidedly edgier than the chorus, which eventually comes as a disappointment. Honestly, I skipped through the second half of the song. I don’t feel like I’m missing much.