Paul Simon, Stranger to Stranger

I know of at least three Paul Simons, one of them semi-personally, but this was the first one I ever heard the voice of and decades later his pipes still sound largely the way I remember. Roy Halee is back to helm and this can sometimes be a recipe for disaster when late-career musicians aren't reined in by late-career producers, but the album starts out well enough with the menacingly wry throwback shuffle of "The Werewolf" and its jazzy jam "Wristband." I also enjoyed the instrumental interludes as a change of pace ("In the Garden of Edie," though, really?), and "Proof of Love" has some of his strongest and most enjoyably complex soundwork yet. Simon's usually more trenchant personality sketches fail him here, however, in that the music isn't compelling and the people aren't sympathetic ("Street Angel" on one hand, but particularly "In A Parade" with its namedrops of antipsychotic medication and the atypically profane "Cool Papa Bell"); similarly, the title track feels almost like he couldn't get the words out fast enough, vainly chasing the pro forma beat with his syllables as the session band plays on obliviously. Fortunately, a spark of the old Simon shows in the ethereal conclusion of "Insomniac's Lullaby," sleeping soon unto death, perfectly capturing those disquieting moments of meditation on the void to come and the hope to be after. Despite the title, he doesn't feel like a stranger to me with that same voice playing in my head since my younger days, and even as one-trick ponies go — and this album still is that — I'm glad he's still crazy after all these years. The deluxe edition adds a couple cast-off tracks which are interesting but short and not on the main album for various good reasons, and his self-cover duet of "New York Is My Home" with Dion is sluggish and uninspired, but the live versions of "Duncan" and "Wristband" (recorded from A Prairie Home Companion) are remarkably compelling and fresh especially to someone like me who usually doesn't consider live tracks to be bonuses. (Content: F-bombs on "Cool Papa Bell" and adult themes on "Duncan.")