Ghosts, monsters and other shady spirits lurk everywhere on Paul Simon's Stranger to Stranger (* * * * out of four stars), out June 3. On the first track, The Werewolf, a man's wife kills him with a sushi knife. As they shop around "for a fairly decent afterlife," the wealthy continue to prosper back on earth. "But we're coming to the end of the rainbow," Simon sings, suggesting we all stock up on water and prepare for looting.
Dystopian nightmare? Revenge fantasy? Neither, actually. Simon's new album is, to be sure, haunted by the inequality that looms large in our national debate. Its songs are populated by characters who will make even most of us in the 99 per cent feel insulated by comparison: the mother of a young army vet who has committed suicide, for instance, or the homeless "street angel" who lands in an emergency room, where "it feels like every wounded soul/Is filling out a form or on the phone."
But Simon finds inspiration in these figures, stressing their dignity and the sheer life force that sustains them in musical portraits that are as bold, vivid and eclectic as any the singer/songwriter has offered. 1986's Graceland is an obvious predecessor, though the passage of 30 years is evident: Electronic dance music beats and loops and samples figure into arrangements that also feature acoustic drums, and instruments range from from the coiled, twangy Indian Gopichand that opens the crisply syncopated Werewolf to the various microtonal devices used on the gorgeously eerie Insomniac's Lullaby.
There is also, just as crucially, space. Produced by Roy Halee, Simon's "old partner" (as the album notes identify him), the tracks breathe and sparkle, bringing us into the lives and struggles documented here. The breathless Street Angel slows down 1930s recordings of gospel quartets and flips them backwards, adding conga drums, to suggest a fevered visionary. The Riverbank uses swampy blues textures and a sturdy beat to evoke a funeral procession, then segues into a swirl of mournful strings.
Simon also offers respite in a pair of delicate instrumentals, including the shimmering In The Garden of Edie, and seems to find a peace of his own in the more introspective Proof Of Love, which moves from twinkling, bittersweet verses to a surging, beatific refrain of "Amen."
There is more reflection, and reassurance, on Stranger To Stranger's gently throbbing title track. "Still believing/That love endures," Simon insists, despite "All the carnage/And the useless detours." He acknowledges, elsewhere on the album, that faith can be hard to come by: The single Wristband is a crackling ode to the disenfranchised, those who "don't get through the door" life opens to the more privileged.
But Simon's new album also reminds us, with typical ambition and discretion, that music can be a vehicle for bridging divides — social, cultural, spiritual. The worst monsters on Stranger may ultimately be those we recognize from the news, or the mirror; but our better angels are here as well, feeling groovy and sounding like heaven.
Download: Proof Of Love, Cool Papa Bell, In the Garden of Edie.