CK Retro Review: Graceland by Paul SimonPosted: September 20, 2013
Like many other artists of his generation, Paul Simon floundered a bit trying to find his way in the early years of his MTV era. It took a little globetrotting to truly get his footing, but once he did, the results were stunning. Graceland, recorded in part in South Africa and released in 1986, was the culmination of his lifelong musical wanderlust, thrillingly melding musical styles from around the world while still sounding quintessentially Simon. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Under African Skies”- The World music angle gets the most publicity when it comes to Graceland, but what sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is the lineup of guest stars that Simon trotted out to help him. On this track, for instance, Linda Ronstadt sings backup. Alas, her efforts come in service of one of the few songs when the production (too glossy, overbaked drum sounds) overwhelms the core of the track.
10. “All Around The World Or The Myth Of Fingerprints”- The lyrics are actually quite fine, as are the quieter sections of the music, but the boogie-rock main section is very routine compared to all of the ingenious tracks around it. Considering that the track led to a dust-up between Simon and collaborators Los Lobos concerning writing credits, this closing song wasn’t worth the trouble.
9. “Crazy Love, Vol. II”- I think if Simon had to do it all over again, he would have eased off on the booming drum sounds that sometimes stick out among the more natural sounds around them. This is one of the songs that sounds a bit dated because of that production choice. On the plus side, the chorus is a catchy one here. Plus, somewhere Bruce Springsteen is seething that he didn’t come up with the character name Fat Charlie The Archangel first.
8. “Gumboots”- It was a tape of this song by the Boyoyo Boys that was the genesis for the whole Graceland project. The instrumental part of the song is fascinating, sounding like a cross between ska and polka. Yet Simon manages to work in a fast-talking lyric that seems of a piece with the spirit evoked by the music.
7. “I Know What I Know”- Another one of the songs that was recorded at first in South Africa, this one features the Gaza sisters providing liberating backing vocals all around Simon’s more tempered take. What makes this song a winner is the beguiling contrast between the music’s loose vibrancy and the stilted small talk between the narrator and his potential one-night stand. That conversation sounds way too detailed to have just come from Paul’s imagination. Methinks he might have lived through this one.
6. “Diamonds On The Soles Of My Shoes”- That beautiful opening by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which bridges the gap between South African music and the doo-wop that enthralled Paul as a child, is the perfect table-setter to this open-hearted offering. Simon’s lyrics just sound good against that sprightly melody, no matter what they’re going on about. The horns are another nice touch. All told, it’s as sound a construction as you could imagine, and it effortlessly coaxes involuntary smiles from its listeners.
5. “Homeless”- Joseph Shabalala and Ladysmith Black Mambazo take center stage on this gorgeous a cappella song. It’s mesmerizing the way the singers can go from practically grunting out a rhythm to melodic and tender heights in a half-instant. When they sing, “And we are homeless,” it is impossible not to think of the political situation in South Africa at the time.
4. “That Was Your Mother”- Simon did his job of assimilating the foreign sounds into his music so well that one might be fooled into thinking that this song came courtesy of South African musicians. Instead, it’s New Orleans’ Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters who bring the frenzied zydeco flavor to the track. Of course, this being Paul, you can’t have only good times in the song, so he includes that hilarious commentary by the father to his son (“You are the burden of my generation.”) And this was the same cat who wrote “St. Judy’s Comet” and “Father And Daughter?” Ouch.
3. “You Can Call Me Al”- Simon probably knew that he needed a single that would sound familiar enough to Western ears to introduce the album. Buoyed by that indefatigable horn riff, the ridiculously limber bass work of Bakiti Kumalo, and, let’s face it, Chevy Chase, he got just what he needed. Quietly tucked away behind the jokey chorus is a poignant tale of a man without a figurative country who finally finds God in the details at song’s end.
2. “The Boy In The Bubble”- Graceland largely is devoid of any outright social commentary, but this lead-off song makes a strong statement without hectoring. Technology gives and technology taketh away, so that the “days of miracle and wonder” aren’t as transcendent as one might assume they should be. There is sustained urgency in the music, from the beginning with that see-sawing accordion all the way to the end as Paul hums his way home. Picture-perfect album-opening track.
1. “Graceland”- Simon has spoken about how he sort of fell into this song based on the initial drum beat which reminded him of Sun Records classics. Yet the tale the song tells is typically Paul, a wistful road trip by a man trying to find himself as much as the location of the King. The descriptions of the scenery are so vivid you feel like you’re on the trip with him, while the descriptions of the narrator’s inner longing are so incisive that they conjure an ache that’s familiar to many. This is songwriting of the highest degree within a gorgeous musical setting. What more could you ask for?
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