Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Top 100 Albums - #36: Graceland (1986)

Legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon's only entry is Graceland, the album which introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a large European audience.
After Simon & Garfunkel split for the second time in late-1969, their final album, Bridge Over Troubled Waters (1970), won two Grammys (for Best Album and Best Song, for the title track). While Garfunkel largely devoted his energies to acting, Simon began a successful and prolific solo career, beginning with a self-titled effort in 1972. This, along with the follow-ups There Goes Rhymin' Simon (1973) and Still Crazy After All These Years (1975), received universal critical acclaim. With the 1980s, however, Simon's career began to falter - after the poor response to One Trick Pony (1980), he reunited with Garfunkel; what was meant to be a one-off show led to a world tour throughout 1982. After the (again) poor response to Hearts & Bones (1983), Simon was in desperate need of reinvention.

It is this reinvention which is present in Graceland, an album which begins with 'The Boy In The Bubble', as Simon-y as title as ever there was. Everything else, however, is completely uncharacteristic of Simon as he is often remembered. For a start, this is catchy, much catchier than 'Mrs. Robinson' and a lot less old hat. The accordian which kicks things off is jazzy, while the bass line of Bakithi Kumalo is just too cool for words. The drums have a thundery sound to them, and Simon is in great voice. Unlike his recordings of the late-1960s, which now can seem tinny and twee, hear his voice is fuller, more optimistic - and a damn sight more bearable.

The title track may take its inspiration from Elvis Presley, but don't let that put you off. This is not some 1950s take-off, not even slightly. Instead, this has the same burbling bass and lilting guitars which glide through the mix and counterpoint the lyrics as they talk of Memphis and Mississippi. The influence of township jive on Simon is clear, because this is from the start a very bright track, bright enough to make you dance in a dusty street on a hot summer's evening. There is none of the plastic spirit and stricken soul which haunted much European music in this time; instead we are treated to a very reasonable few minutes of pure fun.

Having started so well, Simon comes unstuck on the next two tracks. 'I Know What I Know' sounds inane from the start, with its tacky drums and oh-so-jangly guitar. More than that though, Simon here appears to be using the world influences as a token gesture to liven up a boring love song, instead of melding the two together properly like his contemporaries. The chorus section in particular, with its woop woop woop woops is incredibly tiresome. 'Gumboots', the track which kicked off this whole change in genre, is no better. The accordian is back, but Simon is at his worst lyrically, as his words tumble through the mix in no discernable order. This may be more reasonable on the ears than its predecessor, but like its predecessor it leaves you completely cold.

So with two duffers on our hands, it's Ladysmith to the rescue in the shape of 'Diamonds On The Soles On Her Shoes'. This is a true fusion of Europe and South Africa; the opening gels beautifully as Simon's coy lyrics about a love which bridges rich and poor blend seamlessly with the classic Ladysmith choral work. From then on in, we return to the lilting mood of the opening tracks, and we get the same teasing bass as before. If you listen carefully, you will also spot the clever jazzy drum work from Issac Mtshali; his sticking is quietly crisp, straight out of pre-war jazz.

We now come to the most well-known track on the album. 'You Can Call Me Al' was made famous by its video, starring Chevy Chase, but underneath the publicity that generated there is a fantastic pop song. The synth hook, which comes in right at the start, completely draws you in and soon you find yourself an integral part of what is a very snazzy mix. The lyrics, at first glance, appear as rambling and as unintelligible as any of the other gibberish produced by singer-songwriters. In reality, this is a song with a proper story behind it, namely that of a man searching for whom he is and finding himself in Africa (maybe it's the Third World/ Maybe it's just first time around). There is no one thing that makes this track utterly remarkable, even the bass solo towards the end. It just feels so right, even if we are so unable to say why.

The good news continues as we enter the second half of the album. 'Under African Skies' begins with another tantalising, teasing riff from Ray Phiri's Fender. Once again, this flows and wafts along without a single thing to make it unpleasant or boring. And once again, the vocals are for the most part playing second fiddle to feel, but here there is a difference, in the shape of Linda Ronstadt's backing vocals. On the 'chorus' sections, her wails help to lift the song, preventing it from getting flat; they come in just when it matters.

'Homeless' can only be described as utterly charming. Arguably the track which launched Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Europe, it opens with their delightful harmonies and tongue rolls. In the mix of English and Zulu which follows, you fall completely in love with these remarkable men, whose voices are charming and sweet without seeming weak and pitiful like so many contemporary European singers. Even when Simon comes in and the song changes tack, the beauty and composure is not lost. It is one of the highlights of the album.

'Homeless' may be as a smooth talker, but as a pop song it is very much overshadowed by 'Crazy Love Vol. II'. The drum beat on this is the very definition of infectious, and the guitar so wondrous that even the most embarrassed, lead-footed individual will struggle to sit still when there is so much temptation to get up and jive. The lyrics are ridiculous - ridiculous in a friendly and admirable way. If anyone else began a song with the lines Fat Charlie the archangel sloped into the room/ He said "I have no opinion about this/ And I have no opinion about that.", they would be sent to the songwriters' asylum. But with Simon, everything makes a crazy sort of sense, and the affectionate rhythms mean that it all keeps rolling along nicely.

The penultimate track is another duffer, I'm afraid. 'That Was Your Mother' is distinctly mutton dressed as lamb. It's Simon playing the same trick (or making the same mistake) as he did on 'I Know What I Know', taking token influences from a genre and plastering them over what is essentially a bit of American easy-listening. Had he bothered to craft something which interpolated all the different sounds into something new and exciting, then maybe it would have worked better.

The closer, 'All Around The World, or The Myth Of Fingerprints', is also a case of Simon slacking off, though not with the music per se. Simon allegedly stole this song from his collaborators, Los Lobos; the song came out of a jamming session towards the end of recording, for which the group provided most of the material - but on the final release, Simon gave them no credit, and when questioned why, he replied, "Sue me. You'll see what happens."¹ Litigation aside, this isn't all that bad. Perhaps a bit too easy-listening again, but there is still plenty to stimulate you.

Graceland is by no means unique as a record by a Western artist which introduced world music artists to a European audience. World influences had been creeping in since Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975), and Peter Gabriel had been doing much the same thing for four years (see my reviews of Peter Gabriel 4 (1982, #80) and So (1986, #41)). But both Mitchell and Gabriel used the world influences to bring out the darker, sadder, more brooding side of their psyches. With Mitchell, it served as a backdrop for songs about failed relationships and selling out; with Gabriel, it acted as a tool to highlight personal turmoil and concerns about human rights. Graceland, on the other hand, is a distinctly happy record. Rather than being sombre about what could be, it chooses to highlight and celebrate the present. It has within the very fibre of its being an innate optimism, a hope and assurance for the future, which is conveyed by the sheer beauty of what has been created here. Even in its current state, as something of a time capsule of a brighter age, none of the magic has been lost.

3.91 out of 5

¹ 'Rhymin' Simon: Not Welcome in East L.A.', Accessed on June 30 2008.

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