Thursday, November 15, 2012

Paul Simon: Graceland

Cover of "Graceland"
Cover of Graceland
by Dominic A Pearce

The years leading up to 1986 and the release of Graceland had left Simon reeling from a tepid public response to his previous album, 1983's Heart and Bones.

Simon himself had gone a long way in emancipating himself from the idea that he could solely be considered as a supporting artist but he had still struggled to reach the heights that he and Garfunkel had more than a decade before.

With his solo career under threat from edging towards lukewarm Simon needed inspiration.

Inspiration eventually arrived in the form of a Boyoyo Boys cassette entitled Gumboots, a song, as well as a dance (something or other to do with dancing in Wellington boots) that originated from the townships of Africa.

Simon fell in love with Gumboots' style taking major influences from it as well as African music and culture as a whole and sought to create an amalgamation of these new styles, that intrigued him so much, and the pop sensibilities that he was known for himself.

The result of these influences coming together was Graceland, a fantastically jubilant record that peaked at #1 in the UK and has drawn accolades from Q Magazine, Rolling Stone, Channel 4 and Time Magazine over its 22 year lifespan.

Graceland begins with The Boy In The Bubble's frenetic accordion introduction that is quickly joined by funky-pop bass, melodies, harmonies and too much quaint (or queer) instrumentation to list.

The Boy In The Bubble then continues in this way and offers a perfect example of Simon's trademark vocals, a sort of yearning hopefulness, uplifting yet cynical, superbly complementing the story telling ability of the lyrics that showcase Simon's cleverly delivered disgust at the differences and hypocrisies between the 1st world and the abhorrent conditions of the 3rd.

Another personal favourite is the track I Know What I Know, a sublime blend of influences, instrumentation and story.

After a delightful guitar romp for an intro Simon sings about meeting a girl, going with the flow and, effectively, lying so as to not ruin his chances ("Who am I, to blow against the wind?"). The real joy of the song however, reveals itself as the spastic genius of the chorus. Warm lyrics, whooping, hollering and some indescribable backing vocals, it is just a jubilant and elated moment of an already buoyant song.

The next track Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes is the first track to fully make use of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a male choral group from South Africa who sing in the style of the South African Zulus.

The group introduces the track with their deep, deep vocal harmonies as Simon sings his melody over the backdrop. A stunning introduction, the song then segues into a bouncing pop gem until the group rejoins Simon for the climax to the song.

After Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes finishes the most instantly recognizable track begins with its unmistakable riff and works its way towards the famous chorus of "I can call you Betty, and Betty when you call me, you can call me Al".

There have been numerous interpretations of You Can Call Me Al's cryptic lyrics ranging from Simon and his wife at the time, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), mistakenly being called Al and Betty at a party they attended to the slightly more meaningful allusion that Betty is the Betty Ford Clinic and Al is short for alcoholic and the whole song is about a drunk, Simon or otherwise.

Regardless of its meaning (find your own if you need to) the song is nothing short of stunning, punctuated by Ladysmith Black Mambazo throughout, the track also has an opportunity to fit in the phattist bass solo ever recorded, whilst still making time for a great coda full of blaring horns and brilliant harmonies (make sure you check out the video as well, it's got Chevy Chase in it).

So, is Graceland in the top 100 albums of all time, as the polls and lists suggest? Should it be ranked higher than that even? I'd like to think so. Maybe it's the music, maybe the lyrics and maybe the sentiment that I enjoy most or maybe it's just that Graceland plays like a celebration, of its influences and life in general.

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