Wednesday 14 December 2016

My Top Ten Albums of 2016 - Number 6

6. Paul Simon - Stranger To Stranger

It's not that long since I wrote about this album, so here's a copy & paste of what I said back then because I'm very, very lazy...

A couple of months ago, Paul Simon released a new album. The record company hype proclaimed it his best since Graceland. That album is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but it certainly marked the zenith of his (solo) career back in 1986 (for all the controversy that surrounded it). Simon has only released 6 albums since, and with the exception of his ill-fated 1997 musical The Capeman, I've enjoyed every one of them. With that in mind, I took the hype with a pinch of salt...
But, you know what? The hype might be true for once. Don't get me wrong: Stranger To Stranger is not in the same league as Graceland, but it is his most coherent set of songs since... well, certainly since Graceland's successor, Rhythm of the Saints. Which is kind of odd, considering it's a relatively short album and two of its 11 tracks are brief instrumentals (I bought the Deluxe Edition, but you're not missing anything if you go with the standard release, except the rather lovely Dion duet). However, musically, it's his most playful and experimental record since Graceland, largely due to the collaboration with Italian electronic maestro Clap! Clap! (Don't worry, Simon's not gone dance). It also hit Number One in the UK album chart (making him, at 74, the oldest male artist to ever do that) and became his best-selling album since Graceland in the US.

Wristband was the first radio single (do they call them Impact Tracks or summat these days?) and on the surface, it's the somewhat smug tale of a rock musician getting locked out of his own gig who's then refused backstage entry by a security guard because he doesn't have a wristband. As with the best of the Graceland songs, its lyrics are witty and clever... but also have a bit more to say about the state of the world as Simon turns the wristband into a metaphor for privilege, the class system and the growing anger of the "have nots" (those without a wristband) in today's society.

I was focusing on one track when I wrote that, but there's plenty more to enjoy here, from the chilling end times metaphor of The Werewolf, which seems a little too prescient for comfort...
You better stock up on water
Canned goods off the shelf
And loot some for the old folks
Can't loot for themselves
The doorbell's ringing
Could be the elves
But it's probably the werewolf
It's quarter to twelve
And when it's midnight
And the wolf bites
It's a full moon
She's really got the appetite!
This theme continues with a curious ongoing narrative about a street poet who ends up in hospital diagnosed with schizophrenia, looking for proof of love to keep him sane. The more you dig into the lyrics, the more you find Simon casting a wry eye over the terrible state of the world... it's no wonder the final track is an Insomniac's Lullaby. You may wonder how he keeps smiling... well, he gives you the answer to that pretty directly in Cool Papa Bell...
It turns out to be
A great thing for me
I don’t worry
And I don’t think
It’s not my job to worry or to think
Not me
I’m more like
Every day I’m here, I’m grateful
And that’s the gist of it
Now you may call that a bogus
Bullshit, New Age point of view
But check out my tattoo!
Says "Wall-to-Wall Fun"!
It's also this song which finds him bundling in an always-welcome tuba and picking apart the meaning and usage of the word 'motherfucker' in hilarious fashion: even more so when you consider this track was played on Radio 2, heavily edited to the point where it made no sense at all. The unedited version is below...

Next, at #5... out of terrible tragedy grows great beauty.


  1. Agree Graceland is probably the peak of his solo career, I also rate Rhythm of the Saints(1990) highly.
    I can see from your post there is more depth to the lyrics on Stranger To Stranger than I realized. It isn't one of my favorites of 2016, and I wish the musicians he is backed by were able to lift the production to greater heights, but glad you enjoyed it for what it is.

    1. I saw it was one of your disappointments, Chris, sorry to hear that. Maybe it just hit me at the right time, when I needed something a little more upbeat.

  2. From one (very) lazy person to another . . . I understand completely. For some reason, this post sent me back to a very early recording, "Just a Boy" (Simon recording as Jerry Landis.) That clunker should give hope to every aspiring songwriter that there's hope down the road if one just keeps their "eyes on the prize."

    1. I'll have to hunt that down, Marie. I've heard a bit of the early Tom & Jerry stuff he did with Art, but not his solo work prior to that.

  3. I read General Sir John Hackett's memoir, I Was A Stranger, at college. I'd almost finished it when a friend called round and I remember saying to him, "Yeah, it's pretty gripping, but he hasn't strangled a single person yet and I've only got about 50 pages to go". How we roared!

    1. Wow - you're a voice from the past! Good to hear from you again, Artog. Hope you're doing well.

  4. First of all you are not very, very lazy - In fact I think bloggers are the hardest working people out there (part-time job on top of a full time job) but we are all getting a bit down about what is going on in the world at the moment and the music is compounding it - I remain positive however that "love" will out. Have always liked Paul Simon so thanks for recommending this one - As you know I am not on top of current releases at all so need you guys to point me in the right direction. Just checked however and see that Paul is now 75 - Glad he was able to record this one but after this year, I am very afraid for what the new year might bring for some of his generation.

    1. You're right, Alyson... and I still have two more pretty downbeat (one of them verging on the apocalyptic) records in my year end list. Fortunately there are also three more positive ones, especially the Number one, which makes me smile every time I listen to it.

  5. After all these years, have continued to pick up his records. Filled with regret I still haven't picked this one up. Dang it, today is the day! Thanks for the push.


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