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Paul Simon returns with the exquisite 'Stranger to Stranger'

“Sound is the theme of this album,” Paul Simon writes in the press notes accompanying his new work, “Stranger to Stranger,” “as much as it’s about the subjects of the individual songs. If people get that, I’ll be pleased.”

True to his word, the visceral sonic qualities of the 11 tracks on the collection, due Friday, are as commanding as his ever-literate lyrics and consistently inviting melodies.

Yet this is nothing new for one of the premiere singers and songwriters of the rock era, who plays Wednesday at the Hollywood Bowl.

At 74, Simon reaches ever further for new textures, musically and sonically, to help him say what he wants to say, making “Stranger to Stranger” a distinguished and captivating extension of, rather than a dramatic departure from, his rich body of work.

It’s a work reflective of an artist still hungry for exploration. Think back to the chest-deep thump of the drum kit kicking in at the beginning of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” which followed the gentle acoustic-guitar opening. Or perhaps remember the punch of hand-claps and percussion beneath the pair’s bristling harmonies on “Cecilia.”

Don’t forget the stinging slide guitar and the fat, sensuous stereo baritone saxes in “Paranoia Blues” from his 1972 debut solo album. Then there’s the tangibility of fingers slipping across steel strings on “Something So Right” from “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.” 

Just as invigorating: the haunting human spirit emerging from Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s gut-grabbing harmonies on “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from his high-water mark 1986 “Graceland” album.


FOR THE RECORD

8:23 a.m.: An earlier version of this article identified a song from “Graceland” as “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes.” It is “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.”


Here, he’s further expanded the ongoing search for new frontiers by incorporating several custom instruments created by musical maverick Harry Partch to perform the micro-tonal music Partch long championed — music in which octaves are subdivided into 43 parts, rather than the standard 12 notes commonly used in Western classical and pop music.

The first sound we hear is is the rubbery bend of the Bengalese stringed gopichand in the album’s opening track, “The Werewolf.” That sound piques the listener’s curiosity as much as Simon’s lyrics. Black humor rules in this scenario about a “Milwaukee man [who] led a fairly decent life” — until his wife murders him “ahhh … with a sushi knife,” he rhymes nonchalantly.

Simon’s ear for the myriad sounds of life complements his thoughtful reflections on the human experience. Thus, the songs yield insights that feel more vividly genuine than if he had only paired them with the gentle strums of a guitar, which could have relegated the works to the land of the coffeehouse singer-songwriter.

“The fact is,” he  sings in “The Werewolf,” “most obits are mixed reviews/Life is a lottery a lot of people lose.”

When he gets to the chorus, “The werewolf is coming, the werewolf is coming,” he surprises us with the sound and content of a simple pronoun: “Yes, the werewolf is coming, Joe, I hear her howling.”

He then opens an airy soundscape founded on upright bass and hand claps in “Wristband,” a hilarious situation not unlike that in Alejandro G. Iñáritu’s “Birdman,” in which the protagonist steps outside a theater midshow for a smoke, only to hear the door’s lock click behind him.

Only too quickly he discovers “You got to have a wristband, and if you don’t have a wristband, You don’t get through the door.”

The song would remain merely amusing if he didn’t develop the idea toward a larger observation about the lucky few who are “in da club,” and the vast majority clamoring unsuccessfully to join them because they lack the requisite signifier of admission.

Towns that never get a wristband

Kids that can’t afford the cool brand

Whose anger is a shorthand

For you’ll never get a wristband

This is pop music at its most artful and relevant, a sentiment from a septuagenarian representative of rock’s old guard that's arguably as potent as anything from seemingly more streetwise artists one-third his age.

“Stranger to Stranger” includes two instrumentals: “The Clock,” in which a relentless ticking sound is a stern reminder of our limited time on Earth; and “The Garden of Edie,” a gorgeous solo guitar number, fleshed out with harmonium, percussion and Partch’s organ-like Chromelodeon. It’s not hard to interpret it as a paean to his wife, singer-songwriter Edie Brickell.

As he did in 2011’s superb “So Beautiful So What” album, Simon continues to face mortality and what it means to him as the days, weeks, months and years tick by. Spirituality that may have been suspect to a skeptical younger man takes on another dimension later in life.

He invokes the biblical “fishers of men” metaphor for “Street Angel”:

He baits his lines

With prayers and wishes

They sparkle in the shallows

They catch the falling light

We hide our hearts like holy hostages

We’re hungry for the love, and so we bite

The title track initially reads like the musings of a man pondering whether a longtime love would do it all over again. Yet it’s almost impossible not to read that thought in context of his on-again, off-again musical partnership with Art Garfunkel, or even his relationship with his audience:

“In a Parade” evokes the pulsing joy of a second-line procession through New Orleans’ French Quarter, and “Cool Papa Bell” applies his lifelong love of baseball to the story of the Negro League player considered one of the fastest ever to play the game.

The man who still sings with a childlike voice invokes a certain street expletive more than once, seemingly as much to experience with its combination of phonemes passing over his gentle vocal cords as for the meaning the word carries.

The wonders of all this aural exploration make it seem a crime to experience over a cellphone, or computer speakers. This cries out for a megawatt audio sound system, or at the very least audiophile headphones. 

Simon closes the album (which has five bonus tracks in the deluxe CD and vinyl editions) with “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” a reassuring ode to the peace that can come by accepting life on life’s terms:

A siren is playing its song in the distance

The melody rattles the old window frame

Gradually, angels reveal their existence

And there’s nothing and no one to blame

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously advised us “Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” What many people may not realize is that when Thomas wrote it, he was 33.

There’s been plenty of understandable bemoaning of the deaths of so many great musicians in the first half of this year alone: David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Prince, Glenn Frey, Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister and Guy Clark, to cite half a dozen.

Baby-boomer music fans who came of age listening to the music of Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and other rock ’n’ roll poets, can be equally grateful that many of them are not only still with us, but doing some of their best work into their so-called “golden years,” showing by example what it means to lead “a life well-lived.”

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

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