Over his three-quarters of a century on this mortal coil, Paul Simon’s never made two great albums in a row. This isn’t a problem — his focus ebbs and flows like his music, which is often oceanic in its stirred calm and its ease at soaking up little bits from each shore. In bits is how he sounded best on albums like 1990’s clangorous The Rhythm of the Saints and 2006’s Eno-produced fun factory Surprise, from the quarter-century between 1986’s epochal Graceland and the more quietly spectacular So Beautiful or So What in 2011. He’s also the rare artist who’s at a best so many fall short of when wrestling with said mortal coil, whether playing Chevy Chase as a ventriloquist for his midlife crises on “You Can Call Me Al” or grousing about the form you have to fill out to enter “The Afterlife.”
The playfulness of the opener on Simon’s 13th solo album, Stranger to Stranger — where death is a werewolf eating the world’s nuggets and fries, and the first sound you hear is the sproing of a one-stringed gopichand — gives reason to believe he’s working at his finest. He made So What at age 69 after all, with its own tUnE-yArDs-like lead track and trenchant Jay Z reference, so why not at 75? But it’s more of a mixed bag, as per the ice-floe pace of his discography. Milan beatmaster Clap! Clap! adds low-key jumpiness to three tracks, including the Laurie Anderson-esque “Street Angel,” wherein Simon raps that he wears his suit for the suit of it, among other Seussisms (“God goes fishing and we are the fishes / He baits his lines with prayers and wishes”). The novelty electronics make everything feel sillier than it is (not inherently a bad thing), but they also fail to get into a groove (which is).
Simon’s lyrics are occasionally at their darkest (and best) since his ill-fated Capeman musical in 1998, offering, “The truth is most obits are mixed reviews” on “The Werewolf” and a Trumpist “I cannot be held accountable for the things I do or say” on the drifting title tune. There’s grim fun to be had though: “Cool Papa Bell” is fitted with a descending, Dave Longstreth-style riff, and you get to hear the once-angelic voice behind “The Sound of Silence” utter the word “mother**ker.” Most likely “Wristband” will stay the best single of the year to have upright bass in it, and it’s even funnier if you imagine he’s singing from the perspective of Garfunkel.
In keeping with “The Afterlife” and its celestial inconveniences, “Wristband” extends Simon’s late obsession with access. Who goes where, who gets what, and does the devil just flip a coin? It’s a rather straightforward tale of a star being dressed down backstage like some fan, but it’s not overly mocking, and not necessarily taking the star’s side. Concluding with a shrug that “it all goes to the wealthy” on the preceding track, Simon’s no Don Henley; his lightness on record is his firmest possible rebuke to reports that he’s a grump. Or maybe that would be “In the Garden of Edie,” the one of two lovely-ish acoustic instrumentals that’s named for his wife of what will be a quarter-century in 2017. In 1986, he demanded an answer to “What if I die here?” Three decades on, he can handle the mixed reviews.