Album in Depth: Graceland by Paul Simon

Hi, I’m JotaKa. I’m a rocker by birth and grew listening to rock discs and long plays by the dozen. First of all, my Nightmare Revisited got Oct 2th Awesome Blog of the Week on TGWTG.com. Woohoo, mofos! I rulez!!! I mean… I’m really grateful with the recognition and even though I don’t like Paw Dugan all that much, I respect his opinion as a person, but not as a music reviewer: the top 50 just had one album that I liked, but most of them are in my “to look” list… I mean… where is Dark Side? Obviously he is more of an electro dude that I am, but… again, where is Dark Side? But I digress: thanks Paw!

So, anyway, I was in doubt what to do next, Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens or Graceland by Paul Simon. After asking some people around (most of all, my new friend NYUN), this one was the one that got most votes, so, I’ll start with Graceland. Since October 12th is a holiday here in Brazil and I think that 15th will also be a holiday, I may write the other one quickly, but that is just thinking out loud: I really think I can’t listen to Tea for the Tillerman ten to twelve times this week alone because I already heard it like a gazillion times.

Again, since this is not a recent album, heck, even with recent albums I do this, a little background is required:

The year is 1986… wait, is this the first eighties album I’m doing? Graceland? Well, in 1986, Platoon won the Academy Award for Best Film, Metallica’s Master of Puppets is released and Argentina won their second FIFA World Cup.

On that year, Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel fame started recording an album after the flop that was his previous album, Hearts and Bones. This album, however, has a lot of inspiration from the African music style which was really a differential to this album and even to most albums of those days: he heard an instrumental called Gumboots by Boyoyo Boys and worked from there.

This was his seventh studio solo and his twelfth album in whole, counting the Simon & Garfunkel times. By the way, where is Garfunkel now? Hey, just discovered he has some recent works: got to get my fingers on them, he sings well. Getting off-track here: this album was one of the Paul Simon career solo albums and after some disappointing releases, Graceland was a breath of fresh air. It got the best reviews ever for a solo album, with a number one spot on the UK chart and number three on the US chart. In 2006, it was added to the US National Recording Registry, which is kind of a huge deal.

So, to the album itself, it has a magnificent cover: my girlfriend, a student at the school of fine arts, told me it have gothic and Egyptian references and since I don’t know bull about that and what I suggested was laughed upon, I will go with gothic and Egyptian. It evokes a kind of European feel, a Celtic feel too, but that is just from a total art alienated point of view. I was kind of surprised when I discovered that in any way the cover evoked Africa, which is kind of the main theme. Also, when doing research for this review, I discovered that this Graceland is the place where Elvis used to live, I think. I always thought the Graceland in the album was really a Grace Land, like a Land full of Grace, like South Africa, but I thought wrong.

Obviously, this album got a lot of controversial arguments, since it was an African sounded album in times of apartheid, but that didn’t stop it from getting the attention it deserved. So, let’s get this over with: Graceland by Paul Simon.

1st track: “The Boy in the Blob” – This song depends heavily on Accordion, which is second most irritating instrument to me, losing only to bagpipe, but the intelligent fast paced lyrics cover the bloody accordion so well you barely listen to it. The bass lines, arranged by Bakithi Khumalo, are creative and this is a constant through the entire album. The song also has some chimes but not enough to make it change the song.

2nd track: “Graceland” – The title song of this album does quite fare, but not enough so it could be completely pleasant. It tells the story of Paul Simon and his son going to Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee. It has a kind of country feel to it, but since I’m not so much of a country fan, is it in the excellent lyrics that I find comfort, although not being as good as the previous one in the lyrics department, with some clichés here and there.

3rd track: “I Know What I Know” – Even though the previous songs had strong South African influences, this one definitely had the strongest so far with female back vocals singing some strange lyrics that I did not understand: maybe they are English, maybe they aren’t. The lyrics get a little odd, basically, what I could gather, they say: “If she lies to get you in bed, answer accordingly to not seem misplaced”. Meh, it’s definitely not the worst one I ever heard… The intro reminded me of redneck banjo music, but with guitar, and the drum seemed kind of like electronic in some times. This is a top of the mid-grade: a C song. Maybe you’ll like it, but it wouldn’t be in my personal best songs of this album.

4th track: “Gumboots” – This one is a perfect example that when all the pieces fall in place, the result is simply awesome. The percussion sounds like claps and the sax solo is wonderful. The lyrics are inventive and it displays the most awesome pick up line ever: “You don’t feel you could love me but I feel you could”. How can a lady ignore this one? The bass line and the strange bizarre guitar throughout the whole experience make this song a definitely must look on this album: also, it was from the instrumental on this song that the album was made.

5th track: “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” – The intro is one minute long and is really enjoyable, as it is a capella with Paul singing and a really well placed African chant in the back vocals, as through the entire song. The song talks about a rich girl that has diamonds on the soles of her shoes and a boy who is poor as dirt. The song is kind of catchy with some strange reference and a verse that sound really bizarre: “But then she slipped into my pocket with my car keys”… That sounds dirty enough for me. The instrumentals are just in place as a tenor sax and trumpet was what this song needed. The bass works it wonderfully bringing something of a Christmas feeling that I had with an old Christmas collection CD that I believe only I owned…

6th track: “You Can Call Me Al” – This song was the main single of this album and it really should be: it is fun as hell to hear. It’s the type of song I listen on the bus just to get a smile across my face. An up-tempo beat, a bass solo, trumpet and sax as the previous one and of course, lyrics that are really interesting to analyze. Even with the song really being happy, it actually explains a middle life crisis of a man who just lost his father figure and the confusion it brings is just terrifying. You really don’t catch that feeling hearing this song at all, and the African details make the experience richer. It also has references to a party where Paul and Peggy, his wife, were called Al and Betty, just to explain the title and chorus.

7th track: “Under African Skies” – After two really upbeat songs, we have a more calm song, with a kind of hippie feel to it. I couldn’t figure out what the lyrics really mean, but I believe this is the first song to mention Africa with all his letters. It is really a percussion oriented songs, as Paul Simon divides the singing with Linda Ronstadt throughout most of the song, even when they are singing a kind of African language verse over and over again. Is a really enjoyable and more of an ambient song.

8th track: “Homeless” – This song is a pure vocal song with Paul Simon singing mostly in some African language and with some back vocals: oh, and by the way, this is boring as hell. The African themed parts sound really forced in and the lyrics are repetitive. As it loses the awesome Simon’s bass lines, it becomes really a lame track in midst of a really okay album. Maybe who is into Barbershop Quartet can like this, but don’t expect exactly a Barbershop Quartet. Expect a boring song.

9th track: “Crazy Love Vol. II” – Well, first things first: I didn’t found Crazy Love Vol. I and I hate it when people do that thing. Really, why he couldn’t just name it “Crazy Love” or “Crazy Love Volume I”? Well, with that out the way, the song has this strange… slow ska background? I really can’t describe it more than that… Well, the song is somewhat enjoyable but sincerely, after Homeless, some of Frank Zappa’s work would be enjoyable. The lyrics are again where this music shine and I think maybe this album would be better if it was a poetry book accompanying an instrumental CD on the side.

10th track: “That Was Your Mother” – …Polka? How to get more African than polka? Actually, isn’t this Chicken dance arranged? Maybe all polkas sound like that. It is clearly the song with least influence on the theme, and I couldn’t get the meaning of most lyrics, it really sounds forced out and bad arranged. It sounds really off theme and it goes badly with the rest of the album. It is, in my opinion, the worst track in the entire album.

11th track: “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” – Wow, huge title, huge background is needed: this track brought some controversies to Paul Simon, because allegedly, it is the whole piece of Los Lobos’ song, but they didn’t receive credit for it. I particularly hate making side at this type of dispute, but Paul Simon did say he tried to contact them several times and couldn’t, so I stick with Paul Simon in this one, as he probably tried to give them songwriter credit but they waited till the album was a hit to do so. Let’s get to the music: as a finale, it doesn’t stick up that much, as it is a really discrete track, with some down played bass, down played drums and non creative lyrics, but it tries to impress with some excerpts here and there. It may go with the flow of the album, but as a standalone, it is not a good example of this album or Paul Simon’s career.

So how does it hold up? I really enjoy this album, but it is like a brick stone pillow: you may get used to it, but at first, it is hard as hell to be comfortable. I have it around for 5 years, I guess, and even with me classifying it as a good album all in all, it was never a easy pick to me start listening as it demands some ear maturity. It is definitely the best work of Paul Simon alone and the second best of his entire career, being topped only by “Bridge over Troubled Water” with Garfunkel, which is also a really awesome album. The singing is overall inspired and the idea that started it all is a really good idea: while most of the artists of the time were more concerned on making an national album for their success, Paul Simon threw a curve ball and got most of the attention of the listeners community of the time and even to this day it is considered a great album. So, if you ever lay your hands upon this one, hear it. If you could hear Gumboots or You Can Call me Al as standalone tracks, you should.

This is JotaKa, signing off.

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2 Responses to Album in Depth: Graceland by Paul Simon

  1. Ben Carr says:

    Hey Man,

    You are a little inaccurate about the album cover. It depicts Saint George from an ancient Ethiopian manuscript called a harag dates to the late 15th century. Also, Desmond Tutu was crowned archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa on the steps of Saint George church in 1986, the same year Graceland was released. So, there are actually two African links to the album cover.

    • JotaKa says:

      Whoa, man, thanks a lot. I didn’t went into deep detail in the cover by the single reason that I didn’t found out anything about it in Paul Simon biography, so I just had to give my personal feelings and the opinion of my ex who is graduating in Fine Arts.

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