Nick Bollinger samples a new rhythm-based set from Paul Simon.
Paul Simon is a fool for rhythm.
Listen to ‘The Werewolf’, the track that opens his new album.
It’s a great opener, his best since ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ kick-started Graceland thirty years ago. It’s got jokes, albeit black ones (‘Milwaulkee man led a fairly decent life, had a fairly decent living, fairly decent wife/ she killed him/sushi knife…’) It has musical metaphors: that strange stringed sound that starts the song – an Indian instrument called a gopichand - does make a noise something like the howl of a Hollywood werewolf. It has unexpected digressions: by the second verse he’s talking about the income gap, but keeps circling back to the image of the werewolf that will get us all, rich and poor alike. But the clincher is the rhythm: a rolling percussive groove with a West African kick, which spoke to my feet while Simon was speaking his mind.
Simon’s pursuit of rhythm distinguishes him from the singer-songwriter school of the 60s that established the idea of the lone figure with an acoustic guitar and asensitive soul, of which he was once the epitome. It’s what took him to Jamaica for ‘Mother and Child Reunion’, Soweto for Graceland and Brazil for Rhythm of the Saints. And it’s the rhythmic foundations of his new songs that give Simon the freedom to mess around with the song form, often quite radically.
He’s written some great melodies in his time, and still does. But more than ever he slides in an out of a kind of rhythmic song-speak that resembles conversation, with all of its digressions, interruptions and non-sequiturs. A measure of how far he’s come since his Simon and Garfunkel days is to try and imagine Art Garfunkel singing harmony to any of these songs. It’s virtually impossible.
Though rhythms remain integral throughout the album, they do relax a bit – and the guitar comes out - when Simon starts to reflect on the two concerns that have increasingly dominated his writing: love and mortality. In ‘The Riverbank’ he appears to reference the Sandy Hook school massacre, which took place in his native Connecticut.
Elsewhere it is his own mortality that under consideration, resulting in the album’s most traditional songs: the one he calls ‘Proof Of Love’, or the closing ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’ – tunes you could almost imagine on a Simon and Garfunkel album. This is classic Simon songwriting, every note and syllable burnished to perfection.
At times I wonder if the whole thing might be a bit overworked. Still he’s a long way from the days when songs like ‘The Dangling Conversation’ dripped with self-conscious poetics and name-dropped actual poets. In ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’ he tips things gently but nicely off balance with the microtonal bells of the late composer/inventor Harry Partch.
At 74, Paul Simon is still exploring new ways of using language, both musical and lyrical. His compositional tools are words and melodies, but also rhythms and sounds, to which he applies his perfectionism.
Everything here – from the single-stringed gopichan to the Partch-invented zoomoozophone – has been placed, like a dot on a pointillist painting.
That said, there is an element of what you might generously call ‘creative appropriation’ in Simon’s approach. He’s never been shy of borrowing an idea and taking the credit – whether it’s Martin Carthy’s arrangement of ‘Scarborough Fair’, a beat from Soweto or a melody from Bach. And he’s still doing it here, liberally sampling flamenco, samba and the Golden Gate Quartet. Not that it comes out sounding like any of those. More than ever, Simon’s instincts are like those of a hip-hop artist, fashioning his found materials into something uniquely his own. And no one else is going to make a record like this one.
Songs featured: The Werewolf, Wristband, Street Angel, In A Parade, Cool Papa Bell, The Riverbank, Insomniac’s Lullaby.
Stranger To Stranger is available on Universal.