“This album began, as mine often do, in a season of emotional winter: barren landscape, no ideas, anxiety about no ideas, lethargy leading to increased caffeine consumption,” Paul Simon writes in his liner notes for “Stranger to Stranger,” his 13th solo album and first since 2011. We should all be so lucky, or at least so effectively caffeinated: the album that resulted is Simon’s richest, most instantly appealing collection since “Graceland.”
Mentioning that album is a double-edged sword: “Graceland,” now 30 years old, was Simon’s creative summit and the apex of his solo-career popularity, but also initiated debates about casual cultural appropriation. Similar conversations might follow “Stranger,” the spark for which came from a group of Spanish flamenco musicians from Boston.
Tracks the group laid in New York in 2013 provide the foundation for four songs: the title track, “The Riverbank,” “The Werewolf,” and “Wristband.” Those cuts share a snappy thrust, lending the album a supple cohesion. “The Riverbank” and “Wristband,” which literally share beats and bass, are enhanced subtly by Italian EDM producer Clap! Clap!, who also tweaks “Street Angel,” which shares a drum track with “Cool Papa Bell” . . . you get it.
On the closing track, “Insomniac’s Lullaby,” Simon even manages to incorporate Seussian instruments built by Harry Partch (1901-1974), the maverick composer whose microtonal idiom designated 43 notes (rather than the normal 12) in an octave. The strangest thing about the song is that the Partch instruments aren’t the strangest thing about the song; their wobbles, clangs, and whirrs contribute to a dreamlike soundscape, without dominating it. Completing the album are two gemlike instrumentals Simon wrote for a 2016 New York City Center production of “Prodigal Son.”
Simon produced “Stranger” with Roy Halee, whose previous tenure extended from Simon & Garfunkel to “Graceland” and its follow-up, “The Rhythm of the Saints.” The gesture feels meaningful: less a sign that Simon is summarizing his career, more a declaration of creative wanderlust renewed. Accordingly, longtime cohorts like guitarist Vincent Nguini, bassist Bakithi Kumalo, percussionist Jamey Haddad, and multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart work alongside newcomers including the iconic jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette, the composer Nico Muhly, and members of the post-classical chamber ensemble yMusic.
All of which could amount to window dressing, were the lyrics and delivery any less engaging and assured. Simon offers a characteristic mix of loopy (“Wristband” describes a musician accidentally locked out of his own concert) and deeply moving (“The Riverbank,” mixing Simon’s impressions of visiting war vets and attending a Newtown funeral), with a keen sense of history (“Cool Papa Bell,” about a Negro League ballplayer) and a compassionate view of the margins (“Street Angel,” about a homeless philosopher, and “In a Parade,” its poignant sequel).
ESSENTIAL “Insomniac’s Lullaby”
Listen to “Wristband” here:
Paul Simon performs at Blue Hills Bank Pavilion June 24.Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.