Sam Arrowsmith revisits Paul Simon’s seminal 1986 album Graceland
One of the most influential people in my life when it comes to the music I listen to is my mum – she’s not a musician, she just always has some form of music playing in the house. She would often put on tracks from Graceland, most likely because she enjoyed the South African influence on the album. After listening to the album the whole way through on multiple car journeys, I realised that this might be the first album I could listen to, start to end, without skipping any of it. Although my music tastes have changed over the last few years, Graceland still remains one of my favourite albums of all time.
A bit of historical context: after a troublesome reunion gig with Art Garfunkel, the commercially unsuccessful Heart And Bones album and his divorce from Carrie Fisher, Paul Simon was at a low point, personally and musically. As he was coming out of this turbulent period, he became fascinated with a bootleg cassette of South African township music. Going against the cultural embargo on South Africa (a consensus amongst artists to not travel to the country responsible for apartheid), Paul Simon decided to write and record a series of tracks there, as well as bringing some of the local music traditions back to New York to record a few more. This collection of tracks, covering many genres and crossing pop rock with South African music, went on to become his most successful album – Graceland. How did it gain the status of his best work? Why should you listen to this? Should anyone else care that it exists? Hopefully this look at one of my favourite albums ever made (my Mum loves it too, although that’s superfluous to the rest of this article) will convince you to listen to it.
The album covers a wide range of themes, such as poverty, terrorism and marriage (disclaimer: these are not all mutually linked as themes, as far as I’m aware). It also includes both upbeat rock tracks and more mellow songs. This seems to make sense given the turbulent period prior to the recording, and is also quite fitting given the variety of different songs Paul Simon has written prior (see ‘There Goes Rhymin’ Simon’ and hopefully this point will become clear). The only general comment I can make as to why I like the album as a whole is this: every song uses very interesting instruments and all of the lyrics are both catchy and deeply referential. Now, this doesn’t seem particularly different from Paul Simon’s other famous works. However, there is just something else about this album, something about how it was stitched together to create an album that means one can’t help but listen beginning to end every time. Maybe it was the way it ties together the powerful rock beats of the 80s and the traditions of South African music? Maybe it’s how diverse the themes of each song are, and yet how they feel important? Maybe it’s because my mum really likes it (although, of course, this is actually superfluous to the rest of this article)?
I’ll try and tie together the tracks a little more thematically, rather than going through each track one by one. ‘The Boy In The Bubble’, ‘Gumboots’, ‘You Can Call Me Al’, ‘Crazy Love, Vol. II, ‘That Was Your Mother’ and ‘All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints’ are possibly more representative of the powerful 80s element of the album. This goes beyond the typical echoing drums and the general upbeat feel of early 80s ska and post-punk music. The tracks feature so many instruments that you’d expect to find on a jazz or progressive rock album – trumpets, trombones, saxophones, accordions, a washboard and a Synclavier system (an early form of the digital synthesiser) to name some of the more idiosyncratic instruments. If you’re into the technical details of music, then definitely give at least one of these songs a listen! On top of this, the lyrics cover the balance of hope and despair, from the smaller scale of a relationship to the dynamics of the wider world. ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ and ‘All Around the World…’ cover the more grandiose, whilst ‘That Was Your Mother’ and ‘Crazy Love, Vol. II’ cover the intricacies of a complicated love story. ‘Gumboots’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ are a little more bizarre, each with stories that are less dramatic and more jovial. ‘You Can Call Me Al’ is possibly the best-known track on the album, and I think this is for two reasons. Firstly, it was the first single to be released from the album. Secondly, I genuinely believe the song has the best bass riff in any song I’ve heard.
The other major theme or style that I’d group the songs into is those which are heavily influenced by the traditions of South African music – these tracks being ‘I Know What I Know’, ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’, ‘Under African Skies’ and ‘Homeless’. All of these tracks feature a chorus of South African singing, especially ‘Homeless’, which is almost entirely the work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (there’s a clip of this song performed live somewhere on YouTube – it’s just beautiful). It might initially seem juxtaposed to have two different musical cultures seamlessly sewn together, some tracks with greater emphasis on one or the other, but there’s a certain magic about the album (yes, I’m using the word ‘magic’) that makes it all come together and will not leave the listener with any desire to want anything extra from the album. ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ is a prime example of this. The first part of the track features Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing in Zulu whilst Paul Simon introduces the theme of the song – the dichotomy of rich and poor in the same place. The second part of the song features some masterful guitar riffs – nothing too face-melting – and the entourage of powerful instruments. The theme of the song isn’t altered dramatically by the change in music, and the whole piece fits together.
Those familiar with the album might have realised that I’ve yet to mention one of the tracks on the album. One might be asking ‘why is the album called Graceland, when the music doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the historical retreat of Elvis Presley?’ There’s a reason why I’ve left the titular track, ‘Graceland’, till this point in the article. According to an interview about the album that Paul Simon gave, he had the word ‘Graceland’ in mind when writing one of the tracks and was unable to substitute any other place into the melody he had composed. To compensate, he actually took a trip to Graceland to get inspiration for something to write about it, and he certainly wrote something to behold. The song is basically a collection of the thoughts he had during the road trip he took there after his divorce with Carrie Fisher, but it seems more than that – it deals with love, family, travelling through the American countryside, witnessing the spectacles of somewhere else, and an element of hope for everyone. It has both the feel of American music of decades before, and the feel of something newer and inspired. In Paul Simon’s words, “it’s a very good example of how a collaboration works, even when you’re not aware of it occurring.” These also seem to be apt words for the album as a whole.
As much as this is an essential album for me, I’ve found it hard to break it down track by track. I’ve tried to look at it thematically and within the context of its creation, but I can’t help but feel it somewhat takes away from how the album sounds. It’s not something I would have listened to without the enthusiasm from my mum about the album (this is definitely not superfluous to the article). I found it to be something very different to the more contemporary rock I mostly listened to as a teenager, but I remember this being an album I could appreciate as a whole compared to the rest of the music I listened to. I can only hope that I’ve at least piqued the interest of those who’ve never listened to this album. For those who know the album, I’ve found that there’s never really much of a discussion apart from mutually acknowledging that it’s an amazing album. Well, apart from one discussion I’ve had many a time with people whilst listening to “You Can Call Me Al”, regardless of whether they’ve heard the song or not – “this song has the best bass line ever!”