Examining Paul Simon’s Graceland

Graceland_cover_-_Paul_SimonA few weeks ago I was sitting in a coffee shop in central Budapest getting some work done. The shop I usually visit has a musical playlist that features an eclectic melange of music from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. At some point, Paul Simon’s Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, came on. It got stuck in my head, albeit with a bit of a delay. I didn’t end up hearing it again for a few days, but it popped back into my head so I searched it out on YouTube and suddenly found myself listening to it regularly.

I’ve long been familiar with Gracelands place in music history. It was Paul Simon’s comeback album earning him Album and Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards. But I had never paid attention to it. Never sat down and really listened to it. Never examined it. Hearing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, opened me to the rest of the album.

Graceland is now almost 30 years old. The bulk of the recording was completed in South Africa in 1985 (a source of controversy as the United Nations’ had imposed cultural boycott of South Africa due to apartheid). The album has stood up remarkably well, with a fresh, ever-youthful and vibrant sound that combines American songwriting with the music of South Africa.

The Songs

The album’s first track, The Boy in the Bubble starts off with a distinctive accordion riff, setting the tone for the eclectic mix of songs to come. Next up is the title track, a song about a road trip for redemption after a failed relationship, driven by an energetic base and catchy refrain:

“In Graceland, in Graceland
I’m going to Graceland
For reasons I cannot explain
There’s some part of me wants to see Graceland

The songs in the middle of the album are what really stand out to me.

The infectious Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, features backing vocals in Zulu, African guitars, a catchy horn refrain and Simon’s mellow voice all blended together seamlessly.

You Can Call me Al has been the song I always associated with Graceland. The opening synthesizer riff is easily identifiable and accessible but soon gives way to some introspective lyrics:

A man walks down the street
He says why am I short of attention
Got a short little span of attention
And way are my nights are so long
Where’s my wife and family
What if I die here
Who’ll be my role-model
Now that my role-model is
Gone Gone

As our attention span shrinks in the age of the smartphone, these lyrics are as relevant today as ever. Add to that with a generation of millennials who are searching for direction in their lives, in a world that’s changed so much, so quickly. Our well-meaning role-models from previous generations, have trouble comprehending how different things are now. Later on in the track, Simon relays his thoughts and feelings as he arrived in South Africa to research and record the album (more on that below).

Delving deeper into side two of the record, Under African Skies and Homeless transport you to South Africa, with their wonderful harmonies evoking images of a cool summer night. Under African Skies has the legendary Linda Ronstadt lending her voice in a duet with Simon while Homeless, featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo, is what I imagine an African campfire song would sound like.

Travel and Rejuvenation in South Africa

Before Graceland was released, it was thought that Simon’s best days were behind him, having been a cultural icon in the 1960s as one half of Simon and Garfunkel. His previous album had not been well received. He had recently divorced Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia). After being given a cassette tape of a South African group’s music which he listened to regularly, he made his way to Johannesburg, where he would be inspired and rejuvenated.

He wrote about his arriving in South Africa in You Can Call Me Al:

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time around
He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound
The sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen! and Hallelujah!

These are lyrics that strongly resonate with me, listening from a city that has many of the same characteristics. While it’s not exactly the Third World, for decades Budapest was trapped behind the Iron Curtain, well behind Western standards. The language here is proving to be difficult to pick up on my own, there are many homeless “scatterlings” sleeping on the street, while the wonderful architecture stands tall in the background.

Despite being written by an artist in his mid-forties, the uplifting Graceland is a young sounding album. Traveling to a strange new environment reinvigorated the middle-aged Simon, unleashing a surge of creativity that would bring him back to the forefront of popular music. This is pretty much confirmed by Simon’s own lyrics:

It’s a street in a strange world

He is a foreign man

Spinning in infinity

He says Amen! and Hallelujah!

In rock music and throughout the arts in general, travel seems to have helped established artists rediscover their magic. This is a recurring trend that I keep seeing. A few examples off the top of my head include David Bowie in West Berlin in the 1970s (Low and Heroes) , The Beatles in India (Their most productive period, writing enough songs for a double album, The White Album), and The Rolling Stones in New York City (Some Girls). No doubt, there are countless other examples.

Graceland has been a piece of music that’s been mired in the background throughout my life. I have a vague recollection of hearing it a lot as a young child. Beyond that, it wasn’t part of my musical lexicon. By chance I heard a snippet in that coffee shop and this time it stuck.‚  Discovering the depth and quality of Paul Simon’s writing, both on Graceland and throughout his career has been a revelation. I plan to study his work in greater detail going forward.

Related Links and Videos

When researching background information about the various songs on the album, I stumbled across a blog written by a music critic in Chicago. He has spent the last few years writing about Every Single Paul Simon Song, which happens to be the name of his blog. On the about page, he explains why he’s undertaken this task:

Paul Simon just may be the greatest songwriter who ever lived. No other songwriter, certainly of the modern age, matches his consistent poetic quality. No one leans as little on clichƒ©, dares as many brave rhymes, or adventures into as many genres. Few cover the range of topics, ideas, and emotions Simon does, or describes things in that unexpected yet perfect way. Even if you disagree that he is the absolute best songwriter, you must consent that he has few peers… and fewer equals.

I have learned more about music from taking the tangents suggested by Simon’s music than from any other source.

The blog author’s insights to all the songs are all tremendous and well worth the read if you’re looking to gain a deeper understanding of Paul Simon’s lyrics. He breaks it down.

Rolling Stone ranks Graceland at #71 on the Top 500 Albums of all time list. Here is the review.

The Making of Graceland Video

Paul Simon on Letterman in 1986.

Graceland (full album) on YouTube


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