No '60s folkie has written more great music for dancing than Paul Simon, and at 74 he still wants us to feel the beat. "Stranger to Stranger," released Friday on Concord, showcases Rhymin' Paul's polyrhythms in new, exotic combinations by employing custom-made instruments with microtonal tunings created by 20th century composer and theorist Harry Partch.
It sounds better than that sounds. Along with Partch's instruments, Simon uses doorbells, clapping, Italian EDM, Flamenco and African percussion and a tuba to push the songs along. The album runs a brisk 37 minutes, and such tunes as "Wristband," "In a Parade," "The Riverbank" and "Cool Papa Bell" create grooves worthy of "Graceland." But the pulse is often unpredictable — even the one-minute instrumental "The Clock" skips a beat at the end.
The captivating rhythms provide the foundation for an elaborate sonic canvas. One key contributor is co-producer Roy Halee, whose relationship with Simon goes back to "Mrs. Robinson." Simon's voice makes no concession to age, and he sings with the same boyish, earnest precision as always, as if every word is important, which it is. There's not an ounce of flab in lyrics full of surprising twists, such as the couplet pairing "street angel" with "Seroquel."
Simon sings of faith, death, community, ritual, patriotism and music for healing — and that's just in "The Riverbank." Elsewhere he muses about social upheaval ("Wristband"); the end of the rainbow ("The Werewolf"); and The Negro League's version of Joe DiMaggio ("Cool Papa Bell").
There are multiple references to melody, although the set is less tuneful than Simon's most recent album, 2011's "So Beautiful or So What." The prettiest song is the unconventional album's conventional closer, "Insomniac's Lullaby."
"We'll eventually all fall asleep," Simon sings.
In the meantime, there's more toe-tapping to be done.