Released: August 25, 1986
Label: Warner Bros. Records
The 1980’s marked a difficult shift in Paul Simon’s career, both musically and relationally. Combining a rough marriage and rocky divorce to actress Carrie Fisher, along with a stagnant creative output of songwriting and music to show for it, Simon turned to new beginnings for a fresh outlook on his artwork. Inspired by a tape of South African music he had discovered and arduously studied and listened to, Simon sought an ambitious quest to journey to South Africa, invited by people over there to record and write with them in their environment, one of new and exciting ideas, but also a hostile territory, torn and stricken by the politics and violence surrounding apartheid and its effects on the nation. “Graceland” is every bit about the journey and the stories of the process of recording as much as it is about the music itself, two world’s colliding into one global assault on the confines of Western music and its understanding of the outside musical world up to that point.
In essence, “Graceland” is a pop album, one full of upbeat rhythm, dancing, and catchy lyrics. This is no new formula for Paul Simon, a master of his craft in guitar picking and folk melodies. However, the immersion of new musical styles added a whole new layer of wonder and creativity to the mix. Western music was no stranger to its roots as exemplified by other notable rock musicians of their time. Even so, Paul Simon’s excursion to Johannesburg added a new dimension to the game. Here is someone of great stature and acclaim out of his element, immersing himself in the heart of his influences and research. We are given mixtures of American pop music, soaked with Zulu compositions of a cappella singing, and landscapes full and bright with drums and horns and strings. The South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo provides a great deal of contribution to songs too with traditional African chants of their culture. Songs Like “Homeless” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” give the listener a glimpse of the talent that drew Simon to want to showcase these beautiful a cappella medleys on his record. Even so, Mambazo steps outside their boundaries too; where they came from a strictly a cappella background, the recording process provided grounds to sing along with music as well. “Diamonds” begins with the group singing on their own to introduce the song, with Simon soon joining in the fray, and slowly picks up with the rest of the band and evolves into a sophisticated ensemble of voices and instrumentation alike. This provides for one of the better songs on the record, and probably the best representation of what this entire experiment yielded as far as the combination of Simon’s savvy and the African inspiration goes.
Lyrics play an important role in the music as well, mainly because of the number of different subjects and themes it takes on. The first two songs on the record are very familiar to a fan of Paul Simon’s former records. Upbeat song structures and staccato lyric delivery are more or less staples of his songwriting, yet they also bring much more diverse instrumentation to the table. “The Boy in the Bubble” begins with an accordion and introduces the listener to Simon and his all-African studio team. Rolling bass guitar, driving drums, and more unorthodox players of percussion and synthesizers make for a new and intriguing listen. This, as well as a few other tracks on the album delves into political outcries, diving headstrong into issues of apartheid, human freedom, and other prominent topics of the times. Although Simon has gone on record saying he isn’t much of a political writer, simply being present in the atmosphere he was in, as well as his interactions with people both joyous and angry with what he was doing in their country led to grand developments in his abilities and evolution as a musician. The amount of effort, work, and ambition put into this music is equally matched by the enthused and multi-talented South African people he recorded with as well. These songs are fun. “I Know What I Know” is the first track that possesses the audible African chanting and singing to accompany the compositions. The listener now has a clearer understanding of how innovative pop arrangements are pushing new boundaries and fusing the cultures together in harmony. Tracks like “You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love, Vol. II” are also clear-cut examples of African dance mixed with Simon’s traditional guitar and multiple syllable vocal delivery. As it stands, comparing these with the Ladysmith Black Mambazo dominated tracks are equally accessible, yet very far apart in musical origin. The former are synth numbers which, the rhythms section aside, are the most recognizably American songs on the record, while the latter is a master class of world music where a beautiful choral round slips into a moving story of poverty and separation. Graceland’s ability to channel fun, dandy melodies, and also conscious pieces on South African triumph, struggle, and persecution makes for a classic album in the sense of its legend and prowess in society almost 30 years after the release.
Graceland’s influence is boundless. The accolades show for its track record as a chart topper. In addition, it is a 5 times platinum selling album, a Grammy award winner for album of the year, and mainstream favorite amongst Paul Simon’s complete body of work. It is basically the dream package for any artist, achieving both universal acclaim from powerful figures in music journalism, as well as the admiration of the public eye. For Simon, he knew right from the get go that this was something bigger than himself, and that showed on both sides of the spectrum. Heaps of critical praise upon its release was rivaled too by the cries of exploitation of the South African people, and even naive consequential actions against the anti-apartheid movement. To call it one thing or the other, good or bad, is up to the individual’s own opinion. I won’t focus on tangents regarding the political spectrum of the record further, but the controversy was surely present, and grand in scale. From a musical standpoint, the influence is obvious, and that’s not to say Paul Simon was an innovator of American music as far as digging back into the roots of its own history. Bands like Talking Heads (among others) in the new wave scene had already touched and experimented with African polyrhythm in their own artistic projects, and even within the mainstream scope, Peter Gabriel had sought the same influences in his records simultaneously. What separated Simon from them is obviously his immersion in traveling head first into the settings, meeting and writing and playing with musicians in Africa, and even touring with them after the albums completion and release. We see numbers of musicians and bands these days still continuing to explore and create based on viewing music on a global scale.
It is encouraging to see how important Graceland was in shaping and changing people’s opinions about foreign concepts of recording and writing. The music here in a way trumps the spite and controversy surrounding it, in that it ties people together. His worldwide touring and promotion for the record show Paul Simon’s ability to bring different cultures and people together, most visible in his stop in Zimbabwe. People of all walks of life and different cultures watching in the audience and performing on stage paint an incredibly wonderful picture for the future, perhaps not necessarily dissolving the racial outcry and damages done, but bringing folks closer to each other in understanding and love, all highlighted by the universal language that binds them, music.