I’m writing this on June 5. It’s my birthday.
Today I am 42 years old. This seems unfathomably ancient, especially since, in my head, I feel about 20. But I went to an all-day music festival yesterday (featuring Cold War Kids and the great Miles Nielsen – more about him next week), and today I’ve paid for it. My joints are creaky, my head hurts, my whole body is in revolt. I’ve slept a lot of the day away.
Nonetheless, I have been looking forward to 42 for some time, since my whole year will be a Douglas Adams joke. “Hey there. Were you looking for the ultimate answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything? Because here I am.”
As always when I turn a year older, I’m grateful for anyone who says to me, “Oh, you’re not old.” I’m also grateful for anything that convinces me that life doesn’t end at a certain age, that people can be marvelously productive and creative and interesting well past the point when others might call them senior citizens. I’m beyond happy to hear stories of so-called “old” people thumbing their noses at even the notion of growing old, proving that the brain doesn’t have to atrophy, and ambition doesn’t have to wither.
So you can imagine how grateful I am to have a splendid new Paul Simon album.
Simon is 74 years old, and I’ll be thankful to live that long, let alone retain as much fire and intellect as he has. His new album Stranger to Stranger is his 13th solo album, not counting (of course) his seminal work with Simon and Garfunkel, and from its Chuck Close cover to its complex and engrossing songs, it’s a weird garden of delights. Simon’s last record, 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, was a meditation on age and mortality, and was in many ways his final statement. This has left him free to say anything on Stranger to Stranger – no one will be looking to it for more of the same musings on age and death – so it’s as loose, limber and wide-reaching as you could hope.
Simon also, at 74, doesn’t care anymore what people think of him. This is a glorious place for him to be. He sing-speaks with abandon here, and he eschews immediacy – these songs are based in rhythm and mood, with only a few offering singalong moments – and those are subtle, only revealing themselves after time. It can be hard to wrap your mind around what Simon is trying to do on songs like the opener “The Werewolf.” It starts with a single, twangy bent note played on a gopichand, an instrument from India, then the drums – half electronic and half acoustic – shimmy in, leading the song through half a dozen little sections, none of which sound like a traditional Paul Simon song. The production is amazing, including horns and wolf howls, and the organ dirge that closes the song is straight out of Kid A. It’s remarkable.
Much of Stranger to Stranger is driven by rhythm, in the way a lot of Simon’s material has been since Graceland. “Wristband,” the nimble first single, is mostly drums and acoustic bass, with a few tasty horns here and there. (That song is fantastic, starting off as an anecdote about being locked out of his own show and morphing into a treatise on social justice: “The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly, then they spread into the heartland, towns that never get a wristband…”) The two linked songs, “Street Angel” and “In a Parade,” are entirely percussion and voice, the first introducing us to a neighborhood poet who “writes his songs for the universe,” and the second finds him being treated for schizophrenia, deposed from his place as visionary of the streets.
And if I have any complaint about this album, it’s that the sharpest and jauntiest of these songs are missing Simon’s instantly identifiable guitar. He only plays on half these songs, including a pair of minute-long instrumentals, and mostly on the slower, more thoughtful ones. But that’s all right, since the heart of the record is in those moodier pieces. The title track is a sparse waltz that imagines how Simon would feel meeting his wife again, now, as he is. “If we met for the first time this time, could you imagine us falling in love again, still believing that love endures all the carnage and the useless detours…” It’s also about the joy of music, and by the end – after a tremendous muted trumpet solo by C.J. Camereiri – he’s reduced to repeating “I love you,” overcome with emotion.
The centerpiece and masterpiece of this album is “Proof of Love,” and every time I hear this song, I’m swept away, amazed again at how great it is. Its agile acoustic guitar figure gives way to a refrain that climbs up and up: “I trade my tears to ask the Lord for proof of love, if only for the explanation that tells me what my dreams are made of…” The unexpected amens, the flute, the absolutely gorgeous coda (“Silent night, still as prayer, darkness fills with light, love on earth is everywhere”), it’s all so beautiful. This is the truth Simon’s long life has shown him: love is everywhere, and is the only thing worth seeking.
The record comes back to earth for two more rollicking tracks. “The Riverbank” flirts with rockabilly to tell the tale of a community in mourning, and “Cool Papa Bell,” named after a Negro League baseball player, includes a treatise on the ugliness and usefulness of the word “motherfucker.” “Cool Papa Bell” is the only song that looks backward – it sounds like a Graceland outtake crossed with “La Bamba” – and for that reason, it’s my least favorite thing here.
But the album ends with its eyes forward, half-closed though they might be. “Insomniac’s Lullaby” is a gentle piece of music, Simon praying for sweet slumber: “Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night, side by side with the moon, alone in the bed, the season ahead is winter that lasts until June, the insomniac’s lullaby…” This song is arranged for several microtonal instruments, invented by American theorist and composer Harry Partch. These are gadgets that play a whole range of notes between the ones we know, and the effect is disorienting, unmooring. It’s not quite out of tune, but your ears can barely process it. Which makes it a perfect backing for a song about being heavy-lidded, yet unable to sleep.
And let me underscore this one more time: this is an album by a 74-year-old who has arranged a song for microtonal instruments for the first time. Stranger to Stranger would have been a strong record from Paul Simon 20 years ago. That he’s still pushing himself, still creating work of such vivid imagination, is astonishing. These returns have not diminished one bit. I never want him to stop. I know each new Paul Simon album might be the last, but when they continue to be this wonderful, I want him to keep going well into his 90s. If Stranger to Stranger is it, well, it’s a good one. But I hope it isn’t. I hope he lives a much longer life, and keeps showing us younger folks how it’s done.
Next week, at the very least, Miles Nielsen and Tegan and Sara. Probably more. Happy birthday to me. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.