When a major artist’s new work is greeted as “Their best in years”, it’s usually a euphemism for, “Not quite as disappointing as everything else they’ve done since they were great”.
With Paul Simon’s latest album, “Stranger To Stranger”, there is no cause for disappointment. In the 30 years since he released the global smash “Graceland”, he has offered up increasingly minor variations on his established approach: pensive songs combined with exercises in musical tourism. I do not intend that phrase as a slight: Simon is a marvellous musical tourist, and has been ranging across the Americas and beyond since the final Simon & Garfunkel album, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (1970).
The principal source of “Stranger To Stranger” is flamenco, but it is not a flamenco album. Long one of the most melodic of songwriters, Simon has here brought sound, mood and wordplay to the fore. “Stranger To Stranger” is dominated by dry, syncopated, closely miked percussion. It has a spiky shuffle and clatter around which the few other instruments and Simon’s voice run like sand or water, giving it intimacy, urgency and a looseness which belies the care taken in its creation. It recalls both Tom Waits’ experimental 1980s work and T Bone Burnett’s atmospheric Americana without having the remotest chance of being mistaken for either. It is droll and philosophical, perhaps the wryest thing yet in Simon’s oeuvre.
Technically, his solo debut was “The Paul Simon Songbook”, a 1965 curio containing numbers later made famous in his partnership with Art Garfunkel. But his “real” debut was his self-titled 1972 classic. Its opening track is “Mother and Child Reunion”, one of the earliest and best uses of reggae by a non-black, non-Caribbean artist. He travelled to Kingston, Jamaica to record it with the first-rate musicians there. It features the gospel singer Cissy Houston on backing vocals. Although bright and bouncy, it has wistful and enigmatic lyrics. Everything that would mark the best of Simon’s solo career was in place: the branching out into other styles, the eagerness to combine them, the nuanced and complex studies of melancholia and disillusionment.
That strange, unsettling combination of musical jollity and lyrical introspection would find its most popular expression on “Graceland” (1986). In between, Simon recorded three other albums, which add up to an outstanding run (if we discount the dip that was “One Trick Pony” (1980), which, handily, we can, as it was a soundtrack). Simon has periodically been caricatured as a neurotic New Yorker, a kind of pop Woody Allen (an impression not alleviated by his role in “Annie Hall”) delivering self-absorbed lyrics from the psychiatrist’s couch. This is as simplistic an error as thinking of Leonard Cohen as the avatar of bedsit miserabilism or Joni Mitchell as a fey diarist. Like them, Simon has the fiction-writer’s gift of stepping outside himself to inhabit other personae while maintaining his own insight – something more apparent than ever on his new album, where the narrative “I” hops convincingly from character to character.
Of those three albums, two were hits: “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” (1973), an extravaganza of stylistic diversity, and “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975), with its subtle explorations of sorrow, yearning and loss. The latter won Album of the Year at the Grammy awards. Both dealt with Simon’s big subject: the unravelling of lives over time, something encapsulated on his 1977 single, “Slip Slidin’ Away”. This motif found its apotheosis on “Hearts and Bones” (1983), a sombre record which leans heavily on the electronic and digital sounds then coming to the forefront of pop, and contains some of Simon’s finest and most profound work. He has never recorded a song more lovely and affecting than “Rene and Georgette Magritte with Their Dog After the War”, or one as quietly devastating as “Train in the Distance”, about how one may withstand almost anything but hope. “Negotiations and love songs,” he sang, in a line that would later give a title to his best compilation, “are often mistaken for one and the same.”
“Hearts and Bones” had all the introspection but none of the jollity, and it was a commercial flop. Consciously or not, it seems that Simon drew a lesson from it: do not make records without something to which people can tap their toes – hence the career-reviving “Graceland”. In this, if in few other ways, “Stranger to Stranger” sticks to the formula. No album of his has been more overtly rhythm-based, not even if it has “rhythm” in the title. But few have been more discreetly cerebral, either, and that mixture works a treat.