Paul Simon: Graceland, 1986
I could take a year to write a blog post on such a great musical landmark as this. Graceland. I think I could research and analyze and compile enough material to write a small book (or at least a chapter) on the album’s cultural, social and political significance/implications. Because I have enough trouble keeping this updated as it is.
So I have decided to try to keep this short, in order to primarily point you to spend a bit of time with this experiment-gone-oh-so-right. And if you get a real tangible copy, Paul Simon has included plenty of interesting details about the instrumentation and composition about the pieces.
There is something about this album, and hearing the married styles of American rock and roll with the people’s music of South Africa… yes, there is something distinctly flavored about this record, but it doesn’t leave the awkward after taste of forced fusion for the sake of concept. It’s SO much more than a concept. It’s a love story that transcends all prejudice. It’s Romeo and Juliet with a happy ending. Paul Simon fell in love with the music of South Africa – it equally felt to him foreign and familiar – so he made an inspired album using local musicians and their traditions, crossing a metaphorical barrier into a country that was being culturally boycotted by America for anti-apartheid convictions. However Simon, far from supporting apartheid, managed to expose a music that had been hidden from the world under a racist regime.
And when finally uncovered as a mash-up with Simon’s own folky American rock-and-roll style, the overwhelming feeling this record communicates can only be described in one word: happy.
I am sure once someone described the music on this record like floating. And it does float: it grooves along a slow canal under hot sun. It bounces up and down and never loses the momentum. Nothing can get me down, even as I unload my dishwasher and notice a layer of grit left on all the bowls. I have probably already said too much, and I haven’t said a thing about a single song.
Ok, well hold on tight through The Boy in the Bubble. It always sounds a bit messy to me, and I have to be in the right mood for it, but I never regret letting it play out into the title track, Graceland, which still is not my favorite track, but sets the tone as a strong story of journey and pilgrimage to where “we all will be received”. And then we start to have fun. I can do anything while I listen to I Know What I Know, as long as I can sing along, and Gumboots keeps me doing it. Activity preferred.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes is the smoothest track, going down like a latte from Cafe Artigiano, and I do tend to pour myself something to drink at this point of the record to relax a little, just in time to turn it over for the superior side of the album.
If you don’t have this on vinyl, I would encourage you to take a 30 second break before you start the second half, because I’m convinced it’s supposed to be there. You Can Call Me Al sounds like it’s starting over somehow, and Under African Skies is maybe the most stereotypical nod to the motherland, but it’s so perfect, and prepares us for the accapella Homeless that follows.
And what else can I say? Three more songs (on the vinyl edition that I have) and they are all fantastic. Crazy Love Vol II makes me passionate, That Was Your Mother makes me smirk (it’s the one song I feel Paul Simon could have maybe left off), and All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints makes me want to dance, and leaves us feeling hopeful for the world.
Hopeful. An album made in the thick of Apartheid debates in traditional South African styles that remains full of hope is nothing short of a Paul Simon miracle. Maybe he should be made a saint. If he can ever successfully reunite with Garfunkle, he just might.