Review Summary: Where the roots of America and Africa meet. A timeless album which crosses boundaries both political and musical to deliver a message of hope in the darkest of times.
Having split from Art Garfunkel in 1970 (one of many splits in fact for the legendary duo) Paul Simon embarked on a solo career which many sensed was destined for mediocrity. Despite some early successes with his self titled debut, by the mid eighties, this was a largely accurate act of clairvoyance. Yet having reach a crossroads in both his personal and public life a rejuvenated Simon created Graceland
in 1986 with the belief that despite his marriage falling apart and his career as a musician going much the same way, music and positivity could save it all. While many songwriters look deep within their mind at times of crisis (Springsteen’s Nebraska being an obvious example), Simon looked to the world and saw hope. People react to sadness in different ways and instead of focusing on his personal problems and wallowing in self pity, Simon turned to South Africa. With apartheid in full swing, Simon immersed himself in the life and sounds of the continent which proved the lyrical and musical inspiration for his magnum opus. Despite this Graceland
is an album which extends far beyond the specifics of a time and place and is the work of true Universalist.
Musically Simon’s experimentation has been hugely understated and there is no individual songwriter of his prominence who has made such strides in terms of musical accomplishment and experimentation with other sounds. Sure Dylan went electric and Springsteen went Dylan but Simon has stepped deep into other cultures (South America and Africa being his most successful) and like all good songwriters made it his own. No matter where in the world he is coming from Simon has an endearing ability to always sound like a Jewish songwriter from New York City and despite all the sounds of the Dark Continent this is still a record steeped in Americana.
Nowhere else is this better demonstrated than on the title track (It’s named after Elvis’s house, what could be more American?) It’s a harrowing and deeply personal song written clearly about his ex-wife Carrie Fisher and yet comes across as though he’s speaking after the crash, after the worst is over and as he’s beginning to pick up his life again, “She comes back to tell me she's gone/As if I didn't know that/As if I didn't know my own bed/As if I'd never noticed/The way she brushed her hair from her forehead/And she said losing love/Is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you're blown apart/Everybody sees the wind blow.”
Perhaps it’s the driving African grooves and the upbeat rhythms but this is not a song that evokes depression it’s a song which evokes a kind of bleak and melancholy happiness. As an interesting aside the use of the term Graceland was originally thrown in as a placeholder although Simon felt it went on the have coincidental significance as a metaphor for the power of music.
A large section of the music here was written as collaborations with and performed with genuine mbaqanga musicians and it’s a testament to Simon’s prowess as a songwriter that this is blended so effortlessly and naturally with American sounds and musicians such as himself and The Everly Brothers, who guest on the title track. ‘You Know What I Know’ is his a stand out demonstration of this with its subtle and humorous take on American life “She said there’s something about you/That really reminds me of money/She is the kind of a girl/Who could say things that/Weren’t that funny/I said what does that mean/I really remind you of money/She said who am I/To blow against the wind.” Added to this are the powerful back-up singers of Lady-smith Black Mambazo who lend their hands to a beautiful accompanying chorus delivering urgency and strength which contrasts expertly the laid back grooves of Simon and his co-musicians.
The most instantly recognisable tracks both for their widespread radio play and instantly accessible sound are “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al”, yet both are as far apart as Graceland
gets in terms of sound. The latter is a synthy pop number which, the rhythms section aside, is the most recognisably American song on the record while the former is a master class of world music where a beautiful choral round slips into a moving story of poverty and separation.
All in all this has every ingredient of a classic album. It walks a musical path which is unique to itself, it sold by the bucket load (5x Platinum) and is a main stay of critics and media best of lists the world over. Graceland as an album is a buffet of emotions yet showcases its power in finding happiness in the darkest of times, never has a man captured the emotion and struggles of a culture separate from his own better.