Paul Simon’s new album, “Stranger to Stranger,” includes a song called “Wristband.” It’s a narrative about a musician who steps outside the back of the venue he’s about to perform in to smoke a cigarette and check his email.
Behind him, the door shuts and locks, and after the guy walks around the block to enter through the front doors, he is stopped by a giant doorman who informs him: “If you don’t have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door.”
“Wristband” evolves into an exposition about exclusion, about haves and have-nots, about riots that erupt among the “homeless and the lowly,” then spread to the “heartland towns that never get a wristband.”
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“Stranger to Stranger,” released Friday, is Simon’s 14th solo album, counting the soundtrack to “One Trick Pony.” It comes out 44 years after the 1972 release of “Paul Simon,” his first proper solo album. (“The Paul Simon Songbook,” a collection of songs that would become Simon and Garfunkel material, was recorded in 1965, released in 1969 and then un-released.)
In those 44 years, Simon has sustained an uncompromising level of creativity and an unyielding adventurous streak disrupted by few missteps and virtually no flops.
Even “Songs From the Capeman,” from his notorious attempt at Broadway musical theater, bears appeal and various charms.
“Stranger” continues Simon’s trek toward further music exploration and his utter disinterest in repeating previously successful formulas or indulging in nostalgia.
“Wristband” exemplifies much of the music on “Stranger”: a sonic stew of rhythms, percussion and sounds familiar and alien.
The song rides a slinky bass line embroidered with various sounds: handclaps, a soft cacophony of spoken voices and other percussive elements and electronic accents, over which Simon, in a smooth, bluesy voice, delivers his story.
The melody is familiar, predictable and not the song’s salient element. Throughout “Stranger,” melodies concede to the textures and beats and throbs and ambiance and dissonance of the sounds that arise around them.
“Street Angel” is a funky blues song with wry lyrics filled with all kinds of sounds — a Darth Vader growl, small snippets of sampled vocals that recall Moby’s “Play,” and various thumps, thwacks and tings from a drum kit. From a guy who knows his way around a guitar, much of “Stranger” is strangely devoid of guitars.
Simon has a stellar track record as a songwriter. Consider this incredible streak of five recordings from 1968 to ’75, including two Simon and Garfunkel albums: “Bookends,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Paul Simon,” “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.”
“Hearts and Bones” may have derailed that streak, but even that has its keepsakes. In 1986, he rebounded with “Graceland,” his classic re-interpretation (appropriation, some say) of South African township music, then the just-as-excellent but less appreciated “The Rhythm of the Saints.”
Seven years later, “Capeman” deflated his momentum, but he rebounded again with “You’re the One,” a Grammy nominee for album of the year in 2001, making Simon the first artist to be nominated in that category for five consecutive decades.
He followed that in 2006 with “Surprise,” another worthwhile experiment in rhythms and textures, this time with Brian Eno. Five years later, on “So Beautiful or So What,” he reunited with producer Phil Ramone to create what was then his most-praised album since “Graceland.”
Simon was nearly 70 when “Beautiful” was released, a time when many in his position are content to rest their muse, live off their hits, release an album of covers or plunder the American songbook because writing good songs is hard.
Not him. “Stranger” sounds like the work of a man, now 74, inspired to remain engaged, relevant and influential.
“Stranger to Stranger” is filled with heavy themes and dark moments. There’s a murder (with a sushi knife) and a suicide (by a war veteran) and ruminations about love and death. There’s also a tribute to Negro Leagues baseball speed-demon Cool Papa Bell that is not safe for work.
And it’s brimming with sound, noises, including plenty of electronic trinkets and beats, some of them courtesy of Digi G’Allesio, an Italian producer who goes by the name Clap! Clap! That may seem like a stretch — a septuagenarian enlisting the help of a hip electronic musician/producer in his 30s — but Simon manages to employ it all organically, or at least without pretense.
“Stranger” is not immediately engaging; some of it feels too percussive and cold at first. But its charms — the ornate arrangements of all those songs — emerge after several listens and so do the melodies. There’s nothing as drop-dead gorgeous as “American Tune” or “The Only Living Boy in New York” or “Graceland,” but there are plenty of warm or appealing chord progressions and melodic lines that stick.
Simon has said that the album’s essence is sonic, not lyrical, yet he has rendered some lines that resonate. From “The Werewolf”: “The fact is most obits are mixed reviews / Life is a lottery a lot of people lose.”
More than one critic has called “Stranger” Simon’s best album since “Graceland,” and it may be. But that’s probably irrelevant to an artist who refuses to embrace his laurels. Simon may revisit the past, but he doesn’t inhabit it.
In the New York Times, he recently distilled the overarching point of not just “Stranger to Stranger,” but all of his recordings: “To make a pop record, if you don’t make it really interesting, nobody’s going to listen to it.”
Which is why he has been closely listened to for more than five decades.
Paul Simon performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at Starlight Theatre. Tickets are $44.95 to $134.95. Go to kcstarlight.com.