Sunday, July 11, 2010

Graceland (album) - Paul Simon

Paul Simon’s Grammy-winning Graceland - an absolute masterpiece - is a surprising fusion of Afro-funk and jazz, Anglo-American pop, rock and country, and blends of various kinds of South African music. The non-Western percussive-funk rhythms heard on this album are not without precedent in Simon's back-catalogue: witness “Late in the Evening” and “Cecilia”. However, this, his best and highest selling album, glows with the excitement that Simon’s initiation to South African music sparked in him. It is also gilded with some of Simon’s most impressive lyricism, which studiously walks the fine line of not-quite veering into the impenetrable, and is spiced with beautiful metaphors. Many of the songs deal with a middle-aged man’s view of the world after divorce.

Strangely, for a relatively upbeat album - especially given the involved lyrical content - it starts off with discordant minor chords from an accordion. “The Boy in the Bubble” is a treatise on technology and its effects on society. The lyrics are eerie, bitter and sometimes violent: “A shattering of shop windows/The bomb in the baby carriage/Was wired to the radio”; “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”. It is hard to know whether Simon is being ironic when he says “Medicine is magical/And magical is art” and “These are the days of miracle and wonder”, but he ultimately reassures the listener with “And don’t cry, baby/Don’t Cry/Don’t Cry/Don’t Cry”.

Simon himself has nominated his title track as his best-ever composition, and it is probably the best song on an album which is packed wall-to-wall with highlights. “Graceland” has several amazing hooks. Running with a fast Afro-beat and an extremely prominent, sometimes rapid-fire riffing bass, staccato percussion and exquisite African funk guitars, it is beautifully produced. The Everly Brothers are featured. Simon recounts a physical and metaphoric trip to Elvis Presley’s home/theme park, in part a sort of salve to his divorce from Carrie Fisher. Heart-breakingly, Simon suddenly inserts into the rolling rhythm the following: “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” and “Losing love/Is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you’re blown apart” but, without self-pity, rejoins the jaunt, his trip to Graceland.

The most African tracks are “I Know What I Know” (where Simon is upstaged by The Gaza Sisters) “Gumboots” and “Homeless”, which Simon gives over almost entirely to an a capella Joseph Shabalala.

Another stand-out is “You Can Call Me Al” with its famous horns, solo bass break and lyrics as rich as “He looks around, around/He sees angels in the architecture/Spinning in infinity/He says ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’”.

The Linda Ronstadt duet “Under African Skies” is graced by the latter’s sublime harmonisation with Simon. “After the dream of falling/And calling your name out/These are the roots of the rhythm/And the rhythm remains”.

There are two more post-divorce tracks: the only truly down-hearted track on the album, “Crazy Love Vol II” (“Fat Charlie the Archangel/Files for divorce/He says, ‘Well this will eat up a year of my life/And then there’s all that weight to be lost’”) and the little gem “That Was Your Mother”. Here, Simon addresses his child with a nasty, baby-boomer line: “You are the burden/Of my generation/I sure do love you/But let’s get that straight”.

Then Simon concludes with the rocker “All Around the World/The Myth of Fingerprints”, which he recorded with Los Lobos of “La Bamba” fame. After having a dispute over the royalties to this particular track, “Graceland” went on to defeat “La Bamba” to win Grammy for Record of the Year in 1988.

It’s an unexpectedly flooring album, devastating and exhilarating musically, and lyrically abounding with riches.

Writer: Paul Simon except
“The Boy in the Bubble” (Paul Simon/Forere Motlobeloa)
“I Know What I Know” (Paul Simon/General MD Shirinda)
“Gumboots” (Paul Simon/Jonhjon Mkhalali/Lulu Masilela)
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” (Paul Simon/Joseph Shabalala)

Producer: Paul Simon

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