Russian Doll is less a satire of louche New Yorkers than it is a fable. The roundelay in which Nadia is trapped is an allegory for the compulsions and diminishing returns of addiction, the sense that death is overtaking life. Despite all of Nadia’s foreboding and dark humor—the occasional cosmic absurdity of the story that hints at a deeper scheme—Russian Doll hedges. It’s No Exit but with one exit, a trite thematic answer about realizing a foundational trauma: in the end, the tiniest doll at the center of the whole enterprise is Nadia’s troubled relationship with her mother.
Unlike silly songs for children by, say, Raffi, or maudlin songs for parents like Dylan’s “Forever Young” or Cat Stevens’s “Father and Son”—two ballads eager to preserve their singers’ sons in amber—Paul Simon had genuinely intergenerational appeal. He shared with us young passengers the joyful and terrible news of adulthood with patty-cake rhymes (“mama pajama,” “drop off the key, Lee”) and jaunty rhythms, scored by a panoply of ludicrous and wonderful-sounding instruments—from the hooting cuíca in “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” to the triumphant parade drums of “The Obvious Child.”