Monday, May 6, 2013

Paul Simon 9: Graceland

He was always a methodical writer, but even with taking an average of three years between albums, Paul Simon’s commercial draw had dwindled, and it was safe to say he was no longer relevant. (Not that he was oblivious to the situation; he did, after all, include not one but two songs called “Think Too Much” on his most recent album.)
So when the FM radio DJ announced a new song by Paul Simon in the summer of 1986, the initial ho-hum response turned into a raised eyebrow of curiosity. The song was “You Can Call Me Al”, and its catchy chorus, odd rhythm and punchy horns made it a hit. (And thanks to its clever video, for years afterwards record store clerks had to explain to customers that the album with “that Chevy Chase song” was in actuality by Paul Simon.)
It wasn’t an immediate success, but over several months the momentum built, and somehow Paul Simon managed to claw his way back to the mainstream with an album full of appropriated sounds, just like he’d always done. Graceland soon became as ubiquitous in CD racks as Bookends and Bridge Over Troubled Water had been in our parents’ record collections. The album was so popular that a year after it won the Grammy for Album of the Year, the title track won Record of the Year; we’re pretty sure the voters thought it was the album that had been nominated.
Still, the accolades were deserved. The debate will continue as to just how much credit he should get compared to the third-world musicians whose bootleg tape he’d heard, but the truth is he built on something fresh and different to many Americans’ ears, and complemented it with resonant lyrics. In the process, he provided a stepping-stone for people to gain a greater appreciation for “world music”, as well as more dialogue about apartheid.
To backtrack a sentence, Graceland wouldn’t have been successful if it wasn’t a “good” album, and it is. A wheezy accordion heralds in the broken-leg dance of “The Boy In The Bubble”, contrasting the news reporting of the verses with the major-key prophecies of the chorus. The subtle pull of the title track includes the harmonies of the Everly Brothers to capture the wide-eyed experience of traveling. “I Know What I Know” is just plain wacky and fun, leading into “Gumboots”, an update of that original bootleg tape. A good deal of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” can be attributed to the Ladysmith Black Mambazo choral group (they also provide the fire for the a cappella “Homeless” on side two) but the story of the rich girl and the poor boy is just plain sweet.
“You Can Call Me Al” starts the second side, with “Under African Skies” providing a near-lullaby before “Homeless”. “Crazy Love, Vol. II” talks of Fat Charlie the Archangel, which sounds autobiographical on the umpteenth hearing. It’s also something of a signpost on the album, as “That Was Your Mother” is built on a zydeco groove, and “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints” is supposedly a Los Lobos composition they brought to the sessions, only to raise more issues down the road as to just how selfish the man might be.
But that’s all redundant when faced with the basic fact that Graceland was a wonderful surprise when it appeared, and never wore out its welcome. From a primal, instinctive standpoint, it’s a good album, and one that still makes people smile decades later.

Paul Simon Graceland (1986)—4
2004 CD reissue: same as 1986, plus 3 extra tracks
2012 25th Anniversary Edition: same as 2004, plus 3 extra tracks and 2 DVDs


  1. I had to pull over to the side of the road (*) when I saw your tweet announcing this review.

    You're right about it not being an immediate success. People forget that. I remember it ending up in the bargain bins quite soon after its release, and then it was repriced upwards once it found its momentum.

    The "Classic Albums" DVD is an indispensable companion. I'm watching it now, as Paul matter-of-factly describes the title track as "the best (song) I ever did ... Perfect" -- apart from the "ghosts and empty sockets" line.

    And "short little span of attention" in "You Can Call Me Al" is a penis joke. The second half of the song's bass solo is the first half in reverse. Paul hated the first video, so redid it with Chevy Chase ... I could go on.

    In time, you might give it the coveted 5th star.

    (*) metaphorical

  2. 5 star album in my opinion. Love the review.

  3. I had heard that Paul Simon had recorded his latest album in South Africa. When I heard the first two singles, “You Can Call Me Al” and the title track, I had on odd reaction: I thought they weren’t African enough! I was expecting, I suppose, something along the lines of “Remain in Light” or Mick Fleetwood’s “The Visitor”. Instead, they seemed like just catchy, typical Paul Simon songs.

    Then I saw the video for “The Boy in the Bubble”, and I got it. That’s still my favorite track (although the backing vocals should have been more prominent. Diving in deeper, I found the Africanisms to be more prominent on many of the other tracks. Absolutely gorgeous backing vocals on “Homeless” and “Diamonds..” and "I Know What I Know". Meanwhile, Paul’s lyrics were getting stranger than they ever had been. However, he got a good balance in all the elements that would, eventually make the album a hit. “The Visitor”, perhaps, was TOO African for the West, while David Byrne on “Remain in Light” was too weird for just about everybody. For me, the album loses steam after “Homeless”. However, Paul got it right. The album is quite an achievement.