It’s time I reviewed a classic album. They don’t come much more classic than Graceland, the phenomenal 1986 record from Paul Simon, who at that point was already a veteran musician. This is not only the finest album by one of America’s finest songwriters (it surpasses even the best of his work with Art Garfunkel), but a sterling example of pop music as complex, thoughtful, adult entertainment. Graceland is dateless, one of very few 20th-century albums that still justify the cliché of sounding like they could have been made yesterday. And that’s not just because Vampire Weekend have spent their career mining it for inspiration. It’s because Simon here manages that most unusual of feats for a charting, commercially successful pop musician: he transcends his time.
His time, as he regards it on opening track “The Boy in the Bubble,” is an age marked by “the way we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky.” It’s a turn of phrase to knock out all your inhibitors, and it’s the first of many. Sixteen years after Simon and Garfunkel broke up, Simon was still writing lyrics with all the emotional immediacy that had made the duo voices of the ’60s; but in that intervening time, he had also evolved into a craftsman with a much finer, subtler control over the stories that he could spin. He had also, and more importantly, learnt to be surprising. “Fat Charlie the Archangel sloped into the room. He said, I have no opinion about this, and I have no opinion about that.” What a way to begin a song.
On the surface, Graceland seems decidedly upbeat, and indeed it does contain a few sincerely light-hearted treasures (“That Was Your Mother” and the magnificent “I Know What I Know”). But the exuberant, brass-heavy arrangements and bouncy rhythms frequently disguise darker themes. “You Can Call Me Al” sounds celebratory, but it’s about living the unexamined life, blaming circumstance for your unhappiness, and treating romance as a magical cure-all solution. Fat Charlie the Archangel seems to be in an even worse condition, though he is being rather more blasé about it: he contemplates apathetically how he might fill up the remainder of his life once his divorce is resolved, and it’s not clear whether he’s using cynicism as a shield, or he really just doesn’t care anymore. The album culminates with “All Around the World, or, The Myth of Fingerprints,” which explains, amid bellowing saxophones and over hyperactive drums, “why we must learn to live alone.”
Touches of Simon’s own experiences slip into these songs quietly, disarmingly. He gives us close and true observations of others, like the fragile young lovers in “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes,” and then he mingles these with stories drawn from his own life, some wistful and some joyful. He lets you get to know him effortlessly, without ever seeming like he’s “baring his soul” (to use the hackneyed phrase that is routinely applied to singer-songwriter albums). Graceland ought to fit the definition of an emotional singer-songwriter record, but it doesn’t feel like one because it avoids ever seeming like its focus is on the singer-songwriter. Personal moments creep in, sitting comfortably beside the stories of the many other lively and convincing characters who inhabit this album. The title track gives us Simon’s memories of travelling with his son, and then casually ties these back to the “girl in New York City who calls herself a human trampoline”. When the album ends, you realise he has shared a great deal of himself with you, but you haven’t even noticed it until now.
Thus far I have not mentioned the single most obvious fact about this album: it fuses Western pop with traditional African music. I’ve kept this out of focus because to modern ears, the African elements blend perfectly with everything else, and don’t sound particularly remarkable. This is not merely a mark of passing time: it is an indicator of just how good a job Simon did. Reviews at the time raved over the unlikely marriage of disparate traditions, but today it seems more pertinent to observe that Simon recognised common values and common methodologies between those two traditions, and found ways to reconcile them in a manner that violated neither. Miraculously, Graceland’s afropop feels completely organic and never like a gimmick (the borderline-hokey lyrics of “Under African Skies” do come close, but the music itself does not). The result, now that the initial culture shock has worn off, is that most listeners don’t even notice how radical it ought to sound. The songs are more than strong enough to carry the experimentation, and the songs, after all, are what matter.
To be sure, the influence of the Graceland sound does permeate subsequent music, its rhythmical intricacy and exotic instrumentation emulated by more and more mainstream pop as the years have gone by. It was in part thanks to this album that the techniques and conventions of “world music” became standard components in the Western pop vocabulary over the course of the 1990s. Yet the impact of Graceland on music still matters far less than its impact on all those who have treasured the album purely for its own sake. This is literate, supremely quotable pop music (“Your life is on fire – it’s all over the evening news”), but despite references to Fulbright scholarships and cinematographers’ parties, Graceland does not play like music for the elite. It rejoices in an abundance of tight, melodic, energising tunes, and Simon doesn’t bother to discriminate between stimulating the mind, the heart, or the body. On every level, Graceland remains an unqualified success.