Stranger To Stranger
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Stranger To Stranger (Deluxe Edition)
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'The idea is not to just make another album,' Simon explains. 'The idea is to make something that s really worth a listen.'
For anyone who s been listening to great music during the past half-century, Paul Simon is certainly no stranger. So one of the most remarkable things about his extraordinary new masterpiece, Stranger to Stranger Paul Simon s 13th solo record is that it conjures a vivid and vital new context to his well-established genius as a singer and songwriter. Full of thrilling textures that feel fresh and modern, while still offering subtle and artful allusions to our shared musical past, Stranger to Stranger presents the perfect opportunity to get to know Paul Simon in a new way.
A significant sonic breakthrough on Stranger to Stranger came when Simon wrote the song 'Insomniac s Lullaby,' and found himself reminded of the musical possibilities first suggested by Harry Partch the 20th Century American composer and theorist who created custom-made instruments in microtonal tunings. Besides recording sounds from various Partch instruments, one of the key realizations Simon gathered from Partch was the observation that singing in music is akin to human speech, and Simon started to shape vocal lines on the album that way.
Stranger to Stranger allows the listener to experience Simon s singular voice with the shock of the new. Here, his strong voice and conversational lyrics usher us into a brave new musical world where expectations are defied and exceeded, as they were thirty years ago with another masterpiece, Graceland.
On Stranger to Stranger, Simon worked with old friend and collaborator Roy Halee a name familiar from countless recordings now rightly considered classic. 'It s about getting you to actually hear something in a new way. It s about making music that sounds old and new at the same time; music with a sense of mystery,' says Simon.
Paul Simon s collage of sounds for Stranger to Stranger also includes the Italian electronic dance music artist Clap! Clap!, whose sound he ended up putting on three of the tracks ('The Werewolf,' 'Wristband' and 'Street Angel').
'Sound is the theme of this album as much as it s about the subjects of the individual songs. If people get that, I ll be pleased,' explains Simon.... 'The right song at the right time can live for generations. A beautiful sound, well that's forever.'
'One of NPR Music's 30 Favorite Albums of 2016 (so far) ... NPR, June 2016' --National Public Radio
'#14 of 45 on Rolling Stone's Best Albums of 2016 so far ... Rolling Stone Magazine, June 2016' --Rolling Stone Magazine
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The critical accolades that greeted the release of So Beautiful Or So What seems to have re-energized this brilliant, somewhat melancholic composer. At the ripe age of 74, Simon has produced another album that defies expectations and pushes the boundaries of his compositional style. A composer who values the role that rhythm plays in song ("these are the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain") Simon has hired Italian dance club king Club! Club! to re-invigorate his approach of infusing his music with the rhythms of exotic instruments. (Like So Beautiful, this album is an aural wonder through a good pair of cans).
The rhythms themselves surround and envelop some wonderfully acerbic lyrics (the obit lyric quoted above is preceded by the lines: "Milwaukee man led a fairly decent life/made a fairly decent living, had a fairly decent wife. She killed him - sushi knife./Now they're shopping for a fairly decent afterlife. The werewolf is coming." Ah - The Afterlife. "You got to fill out a form first/And then you wait in the line."
Like The Afterlife, it's easy to get caught up in the rhythms and not immerse yourself too deeply in the song itself. That would be a grave mistake - no pun intended. Just as The Afterlife dealt with the composer's imagined death, songs like "/In A Parade" are not what they seem to be upon initial hearing. In the case of the latter, the parade refers an ER tech (nurse? physician?) delaying with an endless stream of patients with critical needs ("Some nights the ER is quiet as an EKG/But tonight it feels like every broken bone, tonight it feels like every wounded soul is filling out a form or on the phone./I can't talk now, I'm in a parade.) The song itself reflects Simon's desire to return to Mardi Gras; it's rhythmic foundation sounds as if he recruited every Mardi Gras Indian Chief to pound out the soul of New Orleans.
And therein lays another level of genius in the music and the songs, of Paul Simon. They can be heard and appreciated on so many different levels - but they are typically not obtuse (i.e., Dylan) or treacly (i.e., McCartney) or musical re-treads (i.e, Taylor) as is the work of many of his contemporaries. Paul Simon continues to break new musical ground.
I'm still absorbing this muic myself, and hope to add more detail to this review as I do so. I find it ludicrous to compare this album to earlier work, just as I find it ludicrous to compare it to Simon's alleged masterpiece Graceland, certainly his most important album. But at this early point, I think I would compare Stranger To Stranger to one of Simon's most under-rated albums, and one I would consider to be among his greatest works: Surprise. Each is an album that defies expectations. Each is an album that confounds some, while revealing great mysteries and connections with repeated listening over time. And each one is a statement of a true artist - a true genius if you'll allow me that - working at the peak of his creative powers at that particular moment of time in his life.
If this is the level of creativity and vitality associated with being 70+ years old, it isn't "terribly strange" at all. At a stage in life when artists can rest on their laurels and release albums of "so what", Simon has pushed himself to create another album that is "so beautiful" rather than "so what". Stranger To Stranger is so fresh, and full with the joy of discovery that it gives me something to look forward to as I move through the sixth decade of my own life. Well, unless the Werewolf becomes our next President and the riots of those without wristbands becomes prescient rather than merely clever.
Finally, let me echo the sentiments of those who recommend purchase of this "deluxe" edition, particularly for the live performance of Duncan from Prairie Home Companion which is absolutely exquisite, and dare I say superior to the original. In this recording the pan-pipes in the refrain are replaced by two fiddles, which give the song an ageless Stephen-Fosteresque quality. Not only is this in keeping with its recording as part of PHC, but also elevates the stature of the song to that of a truly timeless classic.
I feel fortunate to have grown older along with Paul Simon. He continues to provide meaningful entertainment. And inspiration.