Going to Graceland

All too often, the re-release of the records of yesteryear is a cheap, cynical cash-in.  Record companies exploit the imagined nostalgia for days gone by, re-selling the public 10th and 20th and 30th anniversary issues of mediocre, forgettable albums.

Thankfully, this is decidedly NOT the case with the re-release of Paul Simon’s landmark album Graceland.  Originally released in 1986, Graceland received the deluxe re-issue treatment for Record Store Day 2012.  You might see a remastered CD + DVD reissue of this album the next time you’re at your favourite record store, and I’m sure it’s excellent.  I recently picked up Graceland in its 180-gram vinyl incarnation, and promptly fell head over heels in love all over again.

Lead-off song “The Boy In The Bubble” has been back on my musical radar for awhile, thanks largely to Peter Gabriel including a very stripped-down version of it on his recent Scratch My Back album.  In concert, Gabriel introduces his version of the song as a lively number that’s had all the African blood drained out of it, exposing the miserable white man at the core.  On Graceland it comes across as an overcrowded bazaar of influences – equal parts township jive, Senegalese grooves and effortless western pop melodic motion.  Hearing this song leap out of its grooves in 2012 made me a fan all over again.

Each subsequent track is another, richer fold of musical tapestry.  The title track is a perfect road-trip song, echoing back to the songwriter that brought the world “America” all those years ago.  Who hasn’t sat up late at night, ruminating on turns of phrase like:

And she said losing love is like a window in your heart
Everyone sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

“I Know What I Know” must be among the bounciest tunes that Rhymin’ Simon has ever committed to recording tape.  I defy anyone to listen to the brilliant chorus and not have it lodged in their heads for the rest of the week:

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

Impossibly, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” ups the ante even further, integrating Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s wonderfully poetic harmonies into the mix.  The song is ostensibly about New York City, but musically sounds half a world away from the concrete jungle.  SoHo by way of Soweto.

“You Can Call Me Al” was the big hit from the record, aided in no small measure by a cameo appearance by Chevy Chase in the video and synth and horn sections that are more infectious than the Ebola virus.  The sinewy bass line and pennywhistle solo also dig down straight towards the funk centre of your soul.

I personally think the crown jewel of Graceland is the choral genius of “Homeless”.  I won’t even try to describe this song in words – they simply don’t do it justice.  But those glorious Zulu voices – they will follow you around like a lost puppy for days:

Homeless, homeless,
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

Simon undeservedly took a lot of flak for the world music influences on Graceland, particularly the South African connections.  The western press accused him of appropriating another culture’s melodic structures for personal gain.  Others vilified Simon for breaking the unofficial cultural rules of apartheid.  At the end of the day, with the benefit of a quarter-century of hindsight, all Graceland really represents is a glorious intersection of American and African musical idioms.  The songs still resonate with listeners all these years later not because they’re gimmicky or exploitative, but because they’re utterly fantastic songs.

Sometimes records deserve the deluxe reissue treatment so that a new audience might discover them all over again.  Graceland is one of those records.  It will make you dance, make you love, and make you think.


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