The second incarnation of my blog
Based on the top 100 albums in Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500, I have set myself the challenge of hearing and appraising each album. I hope to be surprised and educated along the way.
At number 71 is the 15 million seller Graceland by Paul Simon from 1986.
The album came at a time when Simon’s career was struggling a little. He heard an instrumental album called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits Number 1 by South African band The Boyoyo Boys and liked the style and so wrote a song over one of the tracks. The rest is history.
He recorded the album in South Africa with black musicians and despite that, was criticised by many people for breaking a cultural boycott. It features many musicians including Bakithi Kumalo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Everly Brothers and Linda Ronstadt and the style is varied but does feature a number of best selling singles.
The African sounds and rhythms thread through the album, on some tracks they are the core of the song and on others are an influence. The opener The boy in the bubble has the “Gumboots sound” throughout and is a great example of a Paul Simon song – melodic, full of hooks and lyrics that make you think (and wonder what the hell is on about sometimes). The bass line played on what I assume is a fretless bass, is fantastic.
The Everly Brothers provide backing vocals on the title track and is about a road trip to Elvis Presley’s home Graceland after the failure of his marriage to actress and author Carrie Fisher. This upbeat song has some sad lyrics when you listen carefully.
I know what I know is one of the songs that started as a backing track with no true structure and Simon wrote a melody to fit it. A clever and risky way of making music.
The next song is the best example of what Graceland is all about, Diamonds on the soles of her shoes starts with a slow acapella rendition of the song before the groove starts and gets you moving. There aren’t many songs with Zulu lyrics in them!
You can call me Al is full of cryptic lyrics and is one of the best songs on the album – full of melody and infectious sounds. You may recall the video that also starred Chevy Chase.
Under African skies and Homeless keep up the quality, both relatively low key songs but beautifully constructed and performed. The only tracks that fall down a little are Crazy Love Vol II, that sounds a bit too “80’s” for me and That was your mother which is an odd piece that I am sure would have worked slowed down and without the accordion. What do I know though?!
To make a concept album when the world just wanted more Simon & Garkunkel acoustic songs was a brave decision, but it obviously paid off and reinvigorated Paul Simon’s career. The sound of Graceland is so crisp and the performances impeccable, so to find fault is being picky. Enjoy.
My rating: 8/10
Standout tracks: The boy in the bubble, Diamonds on the soles of her shoes, You can call me Al
Listen to the album here.
See the Top 100 here.