Paul Simon released his 13th solo album, “Stranger to Stranger,” to nearly unanimous and deservedly great critical acclaim last Friday. With Bob Dylan stuck in a rut of recording Frank Sinatra tribute albums, and Leonard Cohen churning out live albums at a rapid pace (“Live in Dublin,” “Live in London” – can “Live at Leeds” be far behind?), the 74-year-old Simon is the only one of the holy trinity of great Jewish folk-rock poets still making new music at a level approaching his all-time best. Nearly five years in the making, “Stranger to Stranger” sits comfortably aside the best work of his solo career, including “Still Crazy After All These Years,” “Graceland,” and “Rhythm of the Saints.”
Simon’s new album continues to stretch the singer-songwriter’s approach in new and experimental ways. The world-music touches he’s been known for at least since “Graceland” but which actually date back to early 1970s tunes like “El Condor Pasa” and “Mother and Child Reunion” are still prominent. But this time out, they’re juiced with other cutting-edge influences, including rhythms and samples provided by an obscure Italian electronic dance music producer; instrumental textures by new-music composer Nico Muhly; some formal jazz elements contributed by legendary Miles Davis drummer Jack DeJohnette and vocalist Bobby McFerrin; and letting his band loose upon a warehouse full of musical visionary Harry Partch’s microtonal inventions. That, plus the appearance of a new-flamenco ensemble on several tracks; an avant-garde chamber ensemble called yMusic; and extensive tinkering with samples of an old recording by the Golden Gate Quartet – oh, and Simon’s masterful guitar playing and a brilliantly literate collection of new songs that work like a novel, with recurring characters, symbols and themes – well, Paul Simon may just have painted another masterpiece. (Even the cover art is taken from a Chuck Close portrait of Simon.)
Compare this with Cohen’s two albums of original songs in the last half decade, which while compelling, don’t break any new ground, and Dylan’s wildly uneven output of new songs on three albums over the past decade, consisting in large part of original variations on old blues, and Simon, by comparison, is downright avant-garde. It gives new meaning to his 1968 song, “The Boxer,” in which he sang, “Now the years are rolling by me, they are rocking easily / I am older than I once was, and younger than I’ll be…” Indeed, on “Stranger to Stranger,” Simon sounds spry, engaged, passionate (as passionate as he can sound within his trademark laconic, somewhat bemused spoken-sung delivery), and totally in command.
Like Dylan’s and Cohen’s work in recent years, many of Simon’s recent songs — “Stranger to Stranger” concludes a late-career trilogy begun with 2006’s “Surprise” and continued on 2011’s “So Beautiful or So What” — are meditations on mortality, aging, God, and the afterlife. While asking spiritual and religious questions, however, Simon has always been the least specifically rooted in Judaism of the three, much more universalist or humanist than Biblical or prophetic. He’s got no “Story of Isaac” or “The Future” a la Cohen, who on the latter sang “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible; no Kabbalistic “Wheel’s on Fire” or Zionistic “Neighborhood Bully” in the manner of Dylan. The closest he’s ever come is “Silent Eyes,” a post-Yom Kippur War ode to Jerusalem that concluded his 1975 hit album, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” and the title track to 1983’s “Hearts and Bones,” which finds the narrator taking off on a journey with a partner, “One and a half wandering Jews…,” presumably a reference to his then-wife Carrie Fisher, daughter of Jewish singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds, of Anglo-Irish ancestry.
Still, from the album’s title to the gospel samples to the preoccupation with angels, both heavenly and earthly, “Stranger to Stranger” – resonant of Moses’s command to the Israelites to remember when they were strangers unto Egypt – is religious throughout, in a sort of Reform Jewish way that connects the liberal socio-political agenda to the notion of tikkun olam, or repairing the universe. A bandleader finds himself locked out of his own concert because he doesn’t sport a wristband, just like entire communities of people can never get ahead because they lack metaphorical wristbands, which you even need to get past St. Peter at the gates of heaven. Visionaries and seers, poets and prophets, are locked up in hospitals and prisons, diagnosed as madmen and criminals (has Simon been re-reading Michel Foucault?). And consumerism is posited as the American religion, even beyond the grave, when in the opening track, “The Werewolf,” a dead couple go shopping for “a fairly decent afterlife.”
I even hear Simon singing about his longtime rival, sometime friend, Bob Dylan, in the album’s best number, “In a Parade.” Ostensibly about a “street angel” who winds up being deemed a sociopath, it’s not too much of a stretch to connect the protagonist to Dylan when Simon sings, “I wear a hoodie now so I won’t get a ticket.” A few years back, Dylan was famously picked up by police who were called about a suspicious character in a hoodie walking alone through the streets of a New Jersey town. The young cops on patrol had no idea who Dylan was, and for a moment they mistook him for a mentally ill homeless person (cue the jokes), until they drove him to the nearby arena where he was performing that night and Dylan’s band and crew vouched for him.
And in an echo of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” Simon concludes the album with a gorgeous lullaby, which wouldn’t have been out of place on a Simon & Garfunkel album, and with Biblical resonance of its own, when he sings:
Soft as a rose
The light from the East
As if all is forgiven
And wolves become sheep
We are who we are
Or we’re not
But at least
We’ll eventually all fall asleep
Eventually all fall asleep.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor to the Forward and the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).