mon 16/01/2017

Albums of the Year: Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger | reviews, news & interviews

Albums of the Year: Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger

Albums of the Year: Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger

Still making new musical discoveries after 50 years in the business

Old-fashioned singer-songwriter music now sounds like something exhumed from the Jurassic era
Paul Simon: 'The sounds have to be interesting and fresh to the ear'

Paul Simon has always been as eclectic as anyone in popular music, tapping into latin music, gospel and reggae long before they dreamed up the term "World Music". Simon is now 74, but he's as restless and inquisitive as ever. For Stranger to Stranger, his thirteenth solo album, he picked up his metaphorical pith helmet and machete and trekked deeper into the hinterland of his private musical vision.

He returned clutching a batch of cunning, allusive and questioning songs, constructed from many components but defying anybody to pin a nametag on them. Alongside the likes of Nico Muhly and Mark Stewart (and his long-term engineering partner Roy Halee), Simon used weird musical contraptions invented by Harry Partch and had even hired Nino de los Reyes to perform "flamenco dancing".

There were some familiar triggers and points of reference, such as the loose-limbed African beat underpinning "Cool Papa Bell" or the hectic latino shuffle of "In a Parade", but everywhere there were layers and overtones. The title track might have worked perfectly well as a mournful ballad, but Simon had woven its slow-moving melody into a tapestry of eerie shimmering sounds and what sounded like ghostly footsteps walking across the ceiling. He'd built "Street Angel" out of a mesh of cross-cut percussion, having derived the title from taking a vintage recording of gospel group the Golden Gate Quartet, slowing it down and playing it backwards. This had the serendipitous effect  of making it sound as if the group were singing the words "street angel". Simon commented that "I like to respond to the stimuli. It's more fun to edit than it is to face a blank page."

The trick of it was to make sure the songs retained a recognisable core, or even a hook, in the midst of all these different treatments and references. There isn't a "Sound of Silence" or "Mrs Robinson" here, but who would deny the sheer itching catchiness of the single "Wristband", a tale about inclusion and exclusion sung with deadpan offhandedness and fitted around a rubbery blues-meets-hip hop rhythm.

As Simon pointed out, these days old-fashioned singer-songwriter music sounds like something exhumed from the Jurassic era. "In order to make that music modern and not purely a used-up form, the sounds have to be interesting and fresh to the ear," he added. Job done, I reckon.

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