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Digging Through the Bins: Paul Simon, still hip after all these years

To confront Paul Simon’s “Stranger to Stranger” (Concord) is to confront the extent of your own ageism.

For me, that meant dealing with the fact that my first reaction to this wildly inventive album was, “Wow, I can’t believe this guy is still pushing the envelope at 74 years old”. For others, Simon’s age might be an instant deal-breaker, so fully have we all swallowed the pop culture Kool Aid, along with the belief that all that is wild and free and true comes from youth. Clearly, this is a false belief, but just as clearly, it’s one that has fully taken hold.

To wit, as he takes to the road to support “Stranger to Stranger,” Simon is so far including only 2 or 3 songs from the new album, in a set comprised largely of popular favorites culled from one of the greatest catalogs in American song. It’s as if Simon himself knows that the majority of his vast audience wants to hear the songs he wrote when he was young, and that they heard when they themselves were younger.

That’s a shame, because “Stranger” is comprised of groundbreaking, envelope-pushing fare, marked throughout by a playfulness and inventiveness we’re told should be the domain of 20-somethings.

Remarkably, this outstanding collection is not even Simon’s finest work of the 21st century – that honor belongs to the 2006 collaboration with Brian Eno, known appropriately as “Surprise.” “Stranger,” though, is in some sense an encapsulation of so much that Simon has done so well since he first parted ways with Art Garfunkel and revealed his interest in the music of other cultures, via songs like “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Duncan.” These influences, interpreted as exotic ones at first blush, would soon come to be known, rather unfortunately, as “world music,” and Simon’s 80s platter “Graceland” would be held aloft as the embodiment of this “movement.” In truth, Simon has always been much more difficult to pin down, stylistically speaking, and “Stranger” continues this trend, as it bends the influence of hip-hop, African music, American folk, doo-wop and pop to the will of Simon’s esoteric but on-point song structures.

Of the many surprises this album offers, paramount among them is Simon’s ability to make pondering mortality, loss and longing sound like an absolutely side-splitting endeavor. “I can take a joke, I’m a laughing at myself,” David Byrne once sang, and Simon himself is in on this joke – the biggest one, the master of all ironies, the fact that aging brings wisdom and insight just as it begins to take away eyesight and mental agility. Feeling sorry for himself does not to be one of Simon’s gifts. He’d rather laugh, and on occasion, sigh, and get on with it.

He also knows how to tie the personal to the universal like a Jedi. “Wristband,” for example, begins as a witty aside involving a musician shuffling out the stage door to sneak a cigarette, only to be locked out and refused admission by a security guard who doesn’t know him from Adam. By the tune’s end, however, Simon has tied this notion of exclusivity – “If you don’t have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door” – to the broader economic reality of present-day America. (“The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly/Then they spread into the heartland/Towns that never got a wristband/Kids that can’t afford the cool brand/Whose anger is a shorthand for ‘You’ll never get a wristband’”.) Simon makes all of this look and sound easy. Anyone who has ever tried to write a song knows differently.

“Stranger’s” sonics are built from the groove up, and the bass/percussion interplay is the at the heart of the aural shenanigans on jams like “The Werewolf,” “The Clock,” “Street Angel” and “Cool Papa Bell”. The title tune, sitting near the album’s median, breaks the flow temporarily with one of the most wistfully beautiful melodic ruminations of Simon’s career. It’s a heartbreaker, as is its bookend, “Proof of Love.” Together, the songs offer balance to the comparatively giddy grooves of their album-mates.

Simon is in full-on experimental mode throughout, as if his first desire in the record-making process is to simply please, interest and entertain himself. Apparently, what entertains him is to act as a human sampler, a man who walks around the modern urban landscape with his cellphone out, photographing and recording whatever sights and sounds capture his eye and ear and crafting them into a deeply personal hybrid. This is exactly what cutting-edge modern artists like Kendrick Lamar have been praised for, and Simon deserves the same treatment, despite the fact that he’s old enough to be Lamar’s grandfather.

“Almost everything that is great has been done by youth,” the 19th century British politician Benjamin Disraeli wrote. Of course, Disraeli never heard “Stranger to Stranger”.