NEW YORK — Wristband, the taut, propulsive first single from Paul Simon's new album, Stranger to Stranger, follows a musician who gets locked out of a concert venue, without the object that would grant him re-entry. "Then the wristband becomes a metaphor," Simon explains, "for people who can't get into anything — can't get into a decent job, can't get into a good life."
He notes, "That's a subject being discussed a lot, particularly in this presidential election year."
Stranger, out Friday , is hardly a polemic on the state of politics, or social mobility, in 2016. Simon, 74, began working on the album about three and a half years ago, and let the music guide him. "It's not that I'm trying to make a point," he says. "I'll just take something I'm thinking about, something a lot of people are thinking about, and it comes out in the context of a song."
Sitting in his Manhattan office, the singer/songwriter is surrounded by mementos: his father's upright bass, a painting by his mother, pictures of baseball heroes, a note from President Clinton. There are photos of other artists; several capture Simon with Art Garfunkel, his partner in the '60s duo that established Simon as a master pop craftsman, with an affinity for weaving in other influences, from gospel to Latin music. Simon is also shown with members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African choral group showcased on his landmark 1986 solo album, Graceland.
Simon's eclecticism is as prominent as ever on Stranger, which features musicians representing a vast array of cultures and genres on tracks that blend acoustic drums with elements of EDM, including loops and samples. Simon's 23-year-old son, Adrian — the eldest of his three children with wife Edie Brickell, and also a composer "with a really good ear" — turned his father on to Digi G'Alessio, an Italian producer known as Clap! Clap!, who has set African field recordings to electronic grooves; he provided beats on several tracks.
"There is a sound that seems to unite the record, even though it uses different sonic elements and instrumentation," Simon says. There's also a narrative element to Stranger: "Quite a few songs are written in the third person," and a character that emerges, a "street angel," pops up more than once, "which makes everything feel interconnected."
He points to one exception, Proof of Love, "which is about this trip I took two summers ago to Brazil, to see a healer named John of God. I didn't go because I had anything wrong with me— and I didn't get anything seriously fixed. But there was something pretty powerful going on down there."
Though he describes himself as "generally optimistic," Simon admits, "I think we're in the most treacherous era that we've been in since, maybe, the (second) World War. I think questions of ecology are going to have a big effect on my children. I think the parts of the world that are democracies are in danger of being corrupted out of being democracies, and I think the United States is one of those countries...We need to overcome some very serious addiction problems. The addiction to greed, the addiction to technology — very hard to break those."
Simon continues to have faith in his creative flow, though he notes, "Edie's is greater; she produces more than I do." (Brickell's foray into musical theater, Bright Star — crafted with Simon's longtime pal Steve Martin— is now up for five Tony Awards.) "My question to myself is, what would happen if I didn't allow it to express itself in this old habit of making songs and music? What if I stopped up that river and waited to see what kind of new tributaries came, if any?"
It's "most likely I'll continue to do what I do," Simon concedes. "But I'm curious."