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American legend Paul Simon.
“The Werewolf” opens Stranger to Stranger, Paul Simon’s thirteenth solo studio album, with a heavy rhythmic thud — bass, drums, and maracas lumbering along in a modified Bo Diddley beat not a far cry from the Who’s “Slip Kid.” Simon isn’t looking to the past, though: he’s writing toward an inevitable sunset, mindful of mortality — just like he was on 2011’s So Beautiful or So What — but he’s firmly grounded in a tumultuous present, embracing all the cut-and-paste contradictions endemic to the digital age.
With the exception of a pair of hushed acoustic numbers and the expansive title track, all positioned to provide necessary pressure relief from the density of the rest of the record, Stranger to Stranger feels built from the rhythm up, a tactic familiar to Simon since 1986’s Graceland. Unlike the easy gait of Graceland, the words here are clipped and rushed, sliding in with the bustle of the rhythm. It’s not that the songs aren’t melodic — hooks arrive in snatches, sometimes forming through the rhythms themselves — but the tracks are cloistered and colorful, accentuated by traces of gospel and doo wop; there’s even an apparent “Love Is Strange” sample. Echoes of tradition existing within this modern framework are telling, underscoring how Simon is making music where the past is ever-present but not consuming: he’s shifted his aesthetic to mirror his times, a tactic common in his solo career.
In many ways, Stranger to Stranger is as bracing and ambitious as Surprise, his 2006 collaboration with producer Brian Eno — this is especially true of its opening triptych, all created with Italian dance musician Clap! Clap! — but the tenor of this album is different. Where the specter of 9/11 hung heavily over Surprise, Simon seems at peace on Stranger to Stranger, acknowledging the twilight yet not running toward it because there’s so much to experience in the moment. He’s choosing to push forward, not look back, and the results are invigorating.