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Paul Simon Mixes Music And Mystery On 'Stranger To Stranger'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Paul Simon has a new solo album, his 13th, called "Stranger To Stranger." Our rock critic Ken Tucker says you'll find Simon exercising his trademark wordplay while emphasizing rhythms created by exotic instruments to create what Simon has referred to as music with a sense of mystery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET ANGEL")

PAUL SIMON: (Singing) My heart goes out to the street angels working their way down. My heart goes out to the street angels. I save my change for a street angel working his way down. I had this exchange with a street angel. Nobody talks to me much. I said, nobody talks to me much - nobody.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Now in his mid-70s, Paul Simon keeps awfully active and adventuresome. He began working on the music that forms his new album, "Stranger To Stranger," soon after the release of his last album, 2011's "So Beautiful Or So What." Simon recently wrote and sang the theme song to Louis C.K.'s daring online TV show "Horace And Pete."

"Stranger To Stranger" is equally daring, an effort to compose Paul Simon music that sounds simultaneously like the Simon we've known for more than half a century and a Simon we've never heard before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WEREWOLF")

SIMON: (Singing) Milwaukee man led a fairly decent life, made a fairly decent living, had a fairly decent wife. She killed him - sushi knife. Now they're shopping for a fairly decent afterlife. The werewolf is coming. The fact is most obits are mixed reviews. Life is a lottery a lot of people lose. And the winners, the grinners with money-colored eyes eat all the nuggets, then they order extra fries.

TUCKER: That song, "The Werewolf," uses rhythms similar to the ones to be heard on the song that opened this review, "Street Angel." They were created by the Italian dance music producer who uses the name Clap! Clap! Simon has been interested in rhythms outside the confines of American folk music for a long time, most notably on his greatest solo success "Graceland" in 1986.

In notes he's written for "Stranger To Stranger," Simon talks about utilizing Spanish flamenco and some of the unique instruments created by the avant-garde composer Harry Partch. He is, in short, a synthesizer of sounds. But to his credit here, he hasn't created songs that exist as mere experiments. They're very much rooted in the ongoing concerns of Paul Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RIVERBANK")

SIMON: (Singing) Frightened by the tone of a phone in the dead of night. Then staring into darkness and praying to the morning light. Price already paid, I saw him go up to the grave. Now the sorrowful parade to the river.

TUCKER: That's "The Riverbank," a song Simon says was partly inspired by the experience of playing at the funeral of one of the teachers killed during the Newtown, Conn. school massacre. It scrupulously avoids melodrama or moralizing. Indeed, it's on a song about a much lighter topic that Simon becomes more overtly political.

It's called "Wristband" about a musician who's prevented by a security guard from entering the hall where he's giving a concert because he's not wearing the proper wristband.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRISTBAND")

SIMON: (Singing) I stepped outside the backstage door to breathe some nicotine. And maybe check my mailbox, see if I can read the screen. Then I heard a click, the stage door lock. I knew just what that meant. I'm going to have to walk around the block if I want to get it. Wristband, my man. You've got to have a wristband. If you don't have a wristband, my man, you don't get through the door.

Wristband, my man. You've got to have a wristband. If you don't have a wristband, my man, you don't get through the door.

TUCKER: As snappy as the elastic band he's singing about, "Wristband" could have been just the whine of a famous person complaining about not being recognized as the star he is. But in the final verse of "Wristband," Simon opens up the scope of the song, turning the possession of a wristband into a metaphor for entitlement, for the way most people are never issued the kind of opportunity or blessing to achieve what an exalted few in power are given.

It's a funny song but also a humane one. In a similar way, Simon picks up a character he describes in the song "Street Angel" and fills out the story of a homeless person in this propulsive composition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN A PARADE")

SIMON: (Singing) Some nights the ER is quiet as an EKG. But tonight it feels like every broken bone, tonight it feels like every wounded soul is filling out a form or on the phone. I can't talk now, I'm in a parade. I can't talk now, I'm in a parade. Can't talk to you now, I'm in a parade. I can't talk now, I'm in a parade.

Diagnosis, Schizophrenic. Prognosis, guarded, medication, Seroquel. Occupation, street angel.

TUCKER: It's entirely possible to listen to all of this album and never trouble your mind with the concern Paul Simon scatters throughout various lyrics. And that possibility is definitely something Simon has striven hard to achieve here. He's created music that can be heard on a number of levels, as pure pleasure first and foremost, but also as more anxious or ambivalent or angry or puzzled, if you choose to delve deeper.

He succeeded in both of these goals with the tidy precision he shares with the artisan and the poet.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Paul Simon's new album "Stranger To Stranger." If you'd like to hear FRESH AIR interviews you missed, check out our podcast where you'll find lots of interviews, including this week's with Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, who made the new film comedy "Popstar" about a hip-hop boy band. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSOMNIAC'S LULLABY")

SIMON: (Singing) Oh, Lord, don't keep me up all night side-by-side with the moon. With its desolate eyes, miles from the sunrise, the darkness inviting to me. The insomniac's lullaby. A siren is playing its song in the distance. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.