If you’ve been a regular reader of this blog, or just personally know me, you know that I grew up listening to music. You also probably know that my late father was a huge influence on my taste and viewpoints of music. However, even though she was never a musician (though she used to play a bit of guitar and played clarinet early in her life) nor has ever had a huge musical knowledge, I cannot deny the fact that my mother also had a role in my musical development.
For the most part, her role was of support, and driving me around to lessons and school band practices. But she did love music, especially folk music, and most especially Paul Simon. She was, and still is, a fervent fan of Simon’s music, both solo and with Art Garfunkel. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in the mid-late 1980s, she listened to Simon’s classic album, Graceland, a lot, and thus exposed me to some of the best music ever recorded before I was even 5 years old.
Yet, I wasn’t just exposed to the album. I LOVED it (and still do). I was 3 years old when the album came out, and before I got totally immersed in my own Beatlemania, Graceland was the adult music I wanted to listen to the most. On top of this, the town library had a copy of Graceland: The African Concert VHS, which had Simon performing most of the songs from the album live with the South African artists that helped him record the album. I watched that video a lot, and when I got it from Netflix a few years ago, it brought back a ton of memories.
So to put it simply, this album was incredibly influential in my musical development, and important in my life.
The album is now just over 25 years old, and Simon is going to be releasing a new documentary on the making of the album, a box set of the recording sessions for the album, and will be performing the album in its entirety on tour this summer with the original musicians. So I thought it would be a good time to discuss what makes this album so damn fantastic, and why it has staying power unlike a lot of music.
First of all, there is not one single song on this album that is weak. None. To be quite frank, every song is pretty damn good, if not amazing. It’s one of the few albums that I own that I can listen to straight through and completely enjoy every single track. This could be due to the fact that I grew up with this album and it’s so engrained in my mind that it can do no wrong, but I doubt that. I think it’s just that the album is just filled with great music.
Second, this album is an amazing confluence of several different styles of music. As I alluded to before, Simon went to South Africa, during Apartheid, and recorded most of the album with black South African musicians, including the now infamous a capella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There is also a heavy zydeco influence on a few of the songs (one recorded with zydeco legend Rockin’ Dopsie), as well as one song with a Chicano influence (recorded with Los Lobos). So the entire album has a bit of a world music feel, even though the heart of every song is rooted in American pop. The mixture of these musical styles some how flow seamlessly together creating a truly wonderful listening experience. However, the most amazing thing about this amalgam of musical styles is that album doesn’t sound 25 years old, but fresh and relevant, and I attribute that to the uniqueness of the album’s sound.
As I was listening to the album recently, I came to the realization that the two sides of the album (if you look at it as a vinyl record or tape) are quite different. Side 1 includes the first five tracks, all of which have a very heavy South African feel, while side 2 has a much more traditional pop feel (with the exception of “Homeless,” which is a capella), though still influenced by the aforementioned musical styles.
The album starts off with “The Boy in the Bubble,” which opens with a solo accordion before being kickstarted by a heavy groove quite atypical of most Paul Simon songs that came before this album. But the groove is just one layer of an absolutely fabulous and sonically intricate song that not only gets the album off to a great start, but it also sets the tone for what the rest of the album, especially the first side. “Graceland” follows, continuing the feel that the opening track set. However, not only is the music enchanting, but also Paul Simon’s lyrical prowess comes alive, expressing his thoughts on his (then) recently failed marriage to Carrie Fisher as he travels with his son (from a previous marriage). The pre-verse is the jewel of the song, where Simon sings, “Losing love is like a window in your heart/Everybody sees you’re blown apart/Everybody sees the wind blow.” To me, that line is genius and truly expresses how he must have felt during the split.
On “I Know What I Know,” the third song on the album, the South African influence really comes out, especially in the backing vocals, which are not even sung in English, but still fit so damn perfectly. The guitar parts, though inconspicuous at times, are also incredibly interesting and unique, but like the backing vocals, are exactly what the song needs. “Gumboots” follows, bringing back a bit of the Cajun zydeco feel that was introduced on the opening track, but with a little more energy. This features the Boyoyo Boys, a South African band, who’s demo of the song was what got Simon to initially go to South Africa.
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” closes side 1, and this track, at least in my mind, epitomizes the album. Some people may not feel that this is the best song on the album (many, including Simon, feel “Graceland” is), but it the song embodies almost every element that made this album famous. It showcases the abilities of mostly unknown South African musicians, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and intertwines both South African and American popular music effortlessly, creating an absolutely stunning song. It also feels like a Paul Simon song. It’s mid-tempo, laid back but still poppy, and allows Simon’s masterful lyrics to just float through the tune. If I was asked to play one song that exemplifies the album, this would be it.
Side 2 opens with the single, “You Can Call Me Al,” which is probably the most well known song from the album (and my favorite growing up). Though it continues to incorporate South African elements, the song is super poppy, never relenting from its pace, just making you want to get up and dance. This is followed by the beautifully stellar “Under African Skies.” Aided by the voice of Linda Ronstadt during the verses and refrain, Simon is able to create an absolutely stunning song, both musically and vocally, making you feel like you are actually wandering the African savannah.
The next track, “Homeless,” has less to do with Paul Simon and much more to do with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. As mentioned earlier, it’s a purely a capella track, which introduced the Western world to the amazing vocal talents of the South African troupe. Simon doesn’t make an appearance until the last 1:30 of the song, and barely at that, but it doesn’t matter, because Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the song, and boy is it fantastic. (Check out the version from the the Graceland concert.)
“Crazy Love Vol. II” follows, bringing a final shot of South African feel to the album. The song, like “Under African Skies,” seems to literally float in the air, but has a driving quarter note feel that makes your body want to move. The last two songs, “That Was Your Mother” and “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints,” are without any South African influence whatsoever. The first is straight-up Cajun zydeco featuring Rockin’ Dopsie, while the latter is a Los Lobos supported Chicano-esque tune. Though both lack the African feel of the rest of the album, they still fit the album being up-tempo and having a world music feel, closing out the album wonderfully.
Graceland has been hailed as one of the greatest records of all-time, and deservedly so. The song writing, both lyrically and musically, is top-notch, and the playing on the album is phenomenal. But it is the fact that Paul Simon was able to take the music styles of another continent and mix it so perfectly with American pop song writing that truly makes this album amazing. From start to finish, the record emits music that is not only wonderful, but also incredibly fun to listen to.
If you don’t own Graceland and/or have never heard it, do yourself a favor and get your hands on it and listen. (If you have Spotify, here’s a direct link to the album.) For those of who have heard it and/or own it, go listen to it again, because there’s not a damn good reason not to, and it just might stir some great memories of your own.