The Breakdown: Stranger to Stranger, by Paul Simon


Micah: Paul Simon is my favorite songwriter of all time. From his folk work with Art in the 60’s, to his singer-songwriter rock and roll in the 70’s, to his explorations into foreign rhythms and sounds in the 80’s, to his missteps in the 90’s, and to his rebirth in 2006, Paul Simon has set a new standard for longevity amongst his contemporaries, a list which includes Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Neil Young.

As far back as I can remember, Paul Simon’s music has been seeping into my worldview and eventually blossoming into full-blown obsession when I started playing in garage bands in high school. Right around this time, Surprise came out, which marked the first album in Simon’s twilight years. Paul Simon recruited Brian Eno and together they created a very strange mixture of popular folk and experimental electronic music. The music became more synthetic, but much larger, and his lofty lyrical lines were given a much more fitting backdrop. The next album saw a collaboration with Phil Ramone, which gave the music a distinct feeling of Americana. The bigness from the Eno album was still there, but a lot of the oddness was replaced by warmer and more comforting sounds.

Seeing Simon’s progression in this new phase of his career has kept me excited for new music. The man is still capable of not only writing, but also recording incredible music. Paul Simon is constantly looking for the next thing that will throw a big enough wrench in his songwriting style to force him to learn how to write again, and I’m sure this next album–no matter whether it’s good, great, or bad–will be drastically different from everything else in his catalog. Let’s see what we’ve got here.

1. The Werewolf

I might like this song more if they took out the howling in the background. It’s just bad. The first verse is great lyrically, but I do have a problem with the Eat all the nuggets / And order extra fries bit at the end of the second verse. There is just too much of this song that doesn’t work for me that the great percussion backtrack can’t keep this song in rotation. Even the synthesizers out of nowhere and the organ at the end fall flat. This song just doesn’t come together and it certainly has no place opening the album.

2. Wristband

It’s obvious this song was written to be played live on tour. I look forward hearing this song when I see Paul and the band tomorrow night, but when it comes up on the album, I almost always skip it. The hook is a bit hokey and the song just doesn’t have much replay value.

3. The Clock

After two disappointing new songs from my favorite songwriter of all time, I really need something great to turn things around. This short little instrumental piece is a bit gimmicky for using a ticking clock to keep time, but I like the way it feels. I hope this marks a shift in the album.

4. Street Angel

It’s very rare for Paul Simon to use any kind of sampling, which is what I’m pretty sure is going on here. It doesn’t always work for him. The sampling is never pronounced enough to ruin the vibe, and sometimes it works really well, but it seems out of place on this song. While this is probably the best song on the album so far, it doesn’t do much for me.

5. Stranger to Stranger

Now this is more like it. This song feels complete and every sound serves to enrich the track. I can appreciate the experimentation of Paul’s late work, but at the end of the day I just want great songs. I love the spare instrumentation, putting Paul up front and center, while providing a dreamy, swirling backdrop for Paul’s musing about an aging love affair.

In this very grown-up love song, Paul asks: If we met for the first time / This time / Could you imagine us / Falling in love again, wondering if that love at first sight, explosion of butterflies in the stomach feeling can exist again through All the carnage / And the useless detours that are inevitable in a lifelong partnership. This song is tragically sad and mournful while being completely full of love at the same time. I really started to get the feel for it when I sat down with the lyrics and tried to piece together what’s going on in Paul Simon’s head. Great song!

6. In a Parade

Lyrically this song reminds me of “The Afterlife” off his last album. Especially when he says Tonight it feels like every wounded soul / Is filling out a form or on the phone. Dealing with the mundane and routine seems to be a theme of Paul’s recent work. Unfortunately it seems that a lot of his hooks have followed suit and are uninspired and mediocre. This would be less noticeable if the majority of the instrumentation on the song wasn’t percussive. Paul’s voice carrying the lone melody shines the spotlight on the song’s weaknesses.

7. Proof of Love

I don’t have any problems with this song, but it doesn’t stand out to me. I like the line And when at times my words desert me / Music is the tongue I speak and the harmonized vocals in the middle of the track, but ultimately this song is unmemorable and doesn’t live up to the incredibly high standard his career has set.

8. In the Garden of Edie

Here we’ve got a nice little instrumental guitar interlude, accentuated by harmonics and wordless singing written, I assume, for his wife Edie Brickell.

9. The Riverbank

This is my favorite song on the album. It sounds like something written around the time when So Beautiful Or So What was being put together. I love the strong driving rhythm and weaving guitars and percussive effects. Paul’s melodies and harmonies are engaging and his vocal delivery is on point. The cello solo is subtle, yet soulful. Everything came together perfectly. I will definitely be putting this song in rotation.

10. Cool Papa Bell

This song is interesting to me. The instrumentation reminds me a lot of Around the World and the Myth of Fingerprints. The stringy electric guitar and pulsating drums and bassline are married with profanity unseen since Paul’s 1997 broadway musical, Songs from the Capeman. I’m having a lot of trouble trying to decipher what’s going on lyrically here. At first the song is about being carefree and humble, then it’s about how ugly it is to call someone a motherfucker instead of their real name, and finally ends with a discussion about beautiful people going to heaven and how many trillion light years away heaven is. I’m very confused, but I like the way it sounds, so I’ll be keeping this song in rotation.

11. Insomniac’s Lullaby

This song has some of the most pronounced synthesizers of anything Paul’s released since Surprise. It features your standard elements of a lullaby; a sweet melody and a pretty guitar part, but lacks the calming consistency that allows the audience to drift into sleep. This lullaby for insomniacs is constantly switching in instrumentation and energy, making a song that should be relaxing into something more unsettling. The song makes me feel strange and I’m not sure how I feel about it as a closer for the album, but I think that’s fitting for the project. It’s certainly not Paul’s best work, but thankfully he’s only borrowing bits and pieces from his catalog to use as he explores new sonic and poetic landscapes–for better or worse–and you have to give him credit for that.


For those who want to delve into Paul’s vast catalog, here are a few playlists to get you started:

OLD FRIENDS: THE ART GARFUNKEL YEARS (YouTube)

  1. Overs – Bookends
  2. The Boxer – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  3. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
  4. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  5. A Poem on the Underground Wall – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
  6. Old Friends – Bookends
  7. America – Bookends
  8. April Come She Will – Sounds of Silence
  9. Homeward Bound – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
  10. Bleeker Street – Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.
  11. El Condor Pasa (If I Could) – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  12. Wednesday Morning 3 A.M. – Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.
  13. Blues Run the Game – Old Friends
  14. Scarborough Fair/Canticle – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
  15. A Most Peculiar Man – Sounds of Silence
  16. The Dangling Conversation – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
  17. Punky’s Dilemma – Bookends
  18. Mrs. Robinson – Bookends
  19. Cecilia – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  20. The Only Living Boy in New York – Bridge Over Troubled Water
  21. The Sound of Silence – Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.
  22. Benedictus – Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.

THE SOLO CAREER (YouTube)

  1. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover – Still Crazy After All These Years
  2. Armistice Day – Paul Simon
  3. Still Crazy After All These Years – Still Crazy After All These Years
  4. Mother and Child Reunion – Paul Simon
  5. Late in the Evening – One-Trick Pony
  6. Duncan – Paul Simon
  7. American Tune – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
  8. Everything Put Together Falls Apart – Paul Simon
  9. Loves Me Like a Rock – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
  10. My Little Town (featuring Art Garfunkel) – Still Crazy After All These Years
  11. Papa Hobo – Paul Simon
  12. Kodachrome – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
  13. Paranoia Blues – Paul Simon
  14. Let Me Live in Your City (Work-in-Progress) – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
  15. Take Me to the Mardi Gras – There Goes Rhymin’ Simon
  16. (What a) Wonderful World (featuring James Taylor & Paul Simon) – Art Garfunkel
  17. Ace in the Hole – One-Trick Pony
  18. Run that Body Down – Paul Simon
  19. Stranded in a Limousine – One-Trick Pony
  20. Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard – Paul Simon
  21. Gone at Last – Still Crazy After All These Years

THE EXPLORATION (YouTube)

  1. The Obvious Child – The Rhythm of the Saints
  2. Crazy Love, Vol. II – Graceland
  3. Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes – Graceland
  4. Hearts and Bones – Hearts and Bones
  5. Proof – The Rhythm of the Saints
  6. Graceland – Graceland
  7. Train in the Distance – Hearts and Bones
  8. Can’t Run But – The Rhythm of the Saints
  9. Slip Slidin’ Away – Negotiations and Love Songs
  10. Think Too Much (b) – Hearts and Bones
  11. The Coast – The Rhythm of the Saints
  12. Song About the Moon – Hearts and Bones
  13. Gumboots – Graceland
  14. Shelter of Your Arms (Work-in-Progress) – Hearts and Bones
  15. I Know What I Know – Graceland
  16. Born at the Right Time – The Rhythm of the Saints
  17. The Late Great Johnny Ace – Hearts and Bones
  18. You Can Call Me Al – Graceland

THE EXPERIMENTATION (YouTube)

  1. Outrageous – Surprise
  2. So Beautiful or So What – So Beautiful or So What
  3. How Can You Live in the Northeast? – Surprise
  4. Ten Years – Carinval!
  5. Horace and Pete Theme Song – Stranger to Stranger
  6. Rewrite – So Beautiful or So What
  7. The Vampires – Songs From the Capeman
  8. Father and Daughter – Surprise
  9. Stranger to Stranger – Stranger to Stranger
  10. I Do It For Your Love (featuring Paul Simon) – Herbie Hancock
  11. The Afterlife – So Beautiful or So What
  12. Wartime Prayers – Surprise
  13. Love is Eternal Sacred Light – So Beautiful or So What
  14. The Riverbank – Stranger to Stranger
  15. Dazzling Blue – So Beautiful or So What
  16. Everything About it is a Love Song – Surprise

Micah Roehlkepartain