Preceded by: Hearts and Bones (1983)
Followed by: The Rhythm of the Saints (1990)
Related to: Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
Some months ago I started this blog introducing my own concept of ‘the basics’. This is the seventeenth and last album belonging to that concept, meaning it’s time to expand your album collection a little more in depth from now on. But not after a little celebration at Paul Simon’s worldbeat party Graceland.
After the split of Simon and Garfunkel in 1970, of which Simon was the primary song writer, the next logical step was a solo career. This eventually was a big success, releasing a couple of highly acclaimed albums. Simon had already experimented with strange music influences while working with Garfunkel (‘El Condor Pasa’), and continued to do this on his solo records. He incorporated a reggae song on his debut album and kept adopting world music in his work that followed, especially on the live album Live Rhymin’ which was released in 1974. But there was a decline in Simon’s songwriting and recording towards the late seventies and early eighties, and his work became less successful. You could say Simon faced his own kind of midlife crisis, but instead of buying a big sports car he went to South-Africa (despite the cultural ban of the United Nations against the apartheid regime) to design his new musical future. Down in Johannesburg, he recorded Graceland, inspired by the local township music. The album became Simon’s most successful solo album, and one of the defining works of worldbeat, blending western pop music with traditional and world music.
The origins of the album are to be found in the fourth track, ‘Gumboots’. This was originally an instrumental song by The Boyoyo Boys, which Simon accidentally heard and wrote his own lyrics to. Simon liked this new sound that much that he started to write a number of others songs, absorbing musical styles like isicathamiya and mbaganga. I have actually not a single clue what typically characterizes those specific styles, but that’s not at all required to enjoy the album. The first time you can hear this African influence on the album is on track 3, ‘I Know What I Know’, where one of those typical Simon-rhythms is fused with zulu yells and a gospel choir. My absolute favorite in this genre however is ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, closing side 1. The intro is sung by a traditional African choir, after some time alternating with Simon’s voice. Then some Caribean guitar riff smoothly kicks in, supported by a delicious drum rhythm. Simon tells us a little story about a wealthy girl while this melody goes on, with the choir returning again in the end of the song.
On side two there’s Simon’s lyrical ode to Africa and it’s rhythms and music: ‘Under African Skies’. This track features Linda Ronstadt’s beautiful harmonizing voice and a nice bassline. It flows over in ‘Homeless’, with an outstanding vocal performance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male choral group. Those tracks all show that Simon made another effort to step into other musical cultures, the African one this time. But he clearly didn’t do this just for the sake of it, he really wanted to incorporate this influences into his own style because of their added value. After all, Paul Simon will always be Paul Simon, and this is best demonstrated on the wonderful title track. Another very smooth guitar riff escorts Simon while he’s making a road trip through America towards Graceland after the failure of his marriage. This still is one my favorite songs of all time, with The Everly Brothers contributing some harmony singing.
The album contains another two of such ‘musical stories’, starting with the opening track ‘The Boy In The Bubble’. It actually has an accordion intro, after which Simon kind of ridicules the modern society with all it’s innovations. The most famous track is without any doubt ‘You Can Call Me Al’, the lead single of the album. It’s an (autobiographical?) story of a man in the middle of an identity crisis. Especially it’s video, featuring actor Chevy Chase ‘singing’ the lyrics, had a great impact as it was a success on MTV, launching Simon to the forefront of pop music again.
The last track of the album, ‘All Around the World or The Myth of the Fingerprints’, brings us our ‘lawsuit of the week’. Simon played with Los Lobos (as one of his guest musicians) during the recording of the album and after Graceland became a massive success, Los Lobos claimed Simon stole this song from them without crediting them. However, Graceland is an album filled with brilliant songs, delivered by Simon as little stories. This is one of those rare albums you can recommend to almost everyone, regardless of their musical references. Enjoy.