One of the richest and most revelatory releases of this half-year, Stranger to Stranger (out June 3 on Concord) continues Paul Simon’s victory lap to cap his eclectic, prolific career. He and his polyrhythmic, multinational ensemble have been previewing a few highlights on the tour he launched over a month ago, but this is an album that must be heard whole, in sequence.
It expresses its themes through textures and beats as much as lyrics, and the songs carry on a conversation with each other, a conversation that may well be occurring in the artist’s head.
The title song is a love song (in the same vein as the instrumental “In the Garden of Edie”), but it’s also one of the best songs ever about musical composition — the inspiration, the craft, the process. Its languid melody ranks with the most beautiful and deceptively intricate he’s recorded, the reverie of a stranger conversing to the stranger within.
So many of the other songs have a sharp edge of social commentary to them — the ominous, opening “The Werewolf,” the sense of entitlement in “Wristband,” the homeless, oracular “Street Angel” who finds himself in the ER of “In a Parade.” Simon skewers the privileged elitism he can sometimes seem to embody against a backdrop of sounds and rhythms that suggests just another night in New York. The results rank with Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints, peaks that one never expected this artist to scale again as he heads toward 75. A lesser and less restless musician could have coasted forever on “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and “Still Crazy after All These Years,” but Simon has left such touchstones many miles and years behind.
If this album’s closing “Insomniac’s Lullaby” provides benediction, it is a perfect one, bringing the song cycle that began with “The Werewolf” full circle.