Albums Of The Week

Layered rhythms and haunting melodies

Almost 60 years after he started out, Paul Simon is crafting songs that still sound vital in today's pop landscape

Stranger To Stranger is the 13th solo album of Paul Simon (above).
Stranger To Stranger is the 13th solo album of Paul Simon (above).PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

A famous musician is locked out of his own gig after a smoke break outside the venue. The bouncer, failing to recognise him, refuses to let him in because he is not wearing the official wristband.

It is a humorous incident that could happen to any artist. However, like many songs found in Paul Simon's 13th solo album, Stranger To Stranger, the 74-year-old singing elder statesman of the American singer- songwriter scene turns seemingly simple anecdotes into intricately crafted folk-pop gems and metaphors for socio-political issues.

"The riots started slowly with the homeless and the lowly/Then they spread into the heartland towns that never get a wristband/Kids that can't afford the cool brand whose anger is a short-hand," he sings on the catchy track, Wristband.

Like many of his works since the ground-breaking 1986 masterpiece, Graceland, the new tracks shine with layered rhythms and unorthodox musical techniques, all the while retaining his distinct knack for sweet and haunting melodies found in Simon & Garfunkel's seminal 1960s output.

Digital dance grooves meld with African sound samples courtesy of Italian electronic musician Clap! Clap!, Peruvian percussion and African woodwind instruments.

He also draws on the unusual works of music theorist Harry Partch, working on microtonal scales with custom instruments such as the chromelodeon, an organ with extended keys.

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The album opens with the wobbly chimes of the ektara, a one-stringed Indian instrument.

"The fact is most obits are mixed reviews," he sings on the track, The Werewolf, which, despite its sprightly groove, deals with death and capitalism.

Cool Papa Bell, on the surface, sounds like a baseball fan's ode to the Hall Of Fame and segregation- era Negro league icon of the same name. Listen closer to the lyrics and it is a facetious tune where he is trying to convince the listener that, despite his seemingly "new-age point of view", he is "Mr wall- to-wall fun".

It is not all heavy-handed social issues or mischievous wordplay though.

On dulcet acoustic-guitar instrumental In The Garden Of Edie, he pays tribute to his wife of 24 years, singer-songwriter Edie Brickell.

Tender album closer Insomniac's Lullaby and its chromatic changes is another acoustic folk stunner that would not sound out of place in Simon & Garfunkel's oeuvre.

The titular character in Street Angel, a homeless man who writes his "verse for the universe", returns in a later track, In A Parade, while title track Stranger To Stranger sees Simon ruminating on the enduring power of love.

It is no accident that Stranger To Stranger sits at the top of the British charts and is in the Top 3 of the American charts, in the company of current chart-toppers such as Drake, Beyonce and other artists working within the zeitgeist.

Almost six decades after he started out, Simon is crafting songs that still sound vital in the contemporary pop landscape.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2016, with the headline 'Layered rhythms and haunting melodies'. Print Edition | Subscribe