Paul Simon was largely written off as irrelevant after his lack of success with One Trick Pony and Hearts and Bones, and he surprised everyone by coming up with his greatest artistic triumph more than twenty years after ‘The Sound Of Silence’ reached number one on the U.S. chart. Simon received the inspiration for Graceland after a friend gave him a cassette of South African music. After continuously playing the cassette in his car Simon became infatuated with one of the groups, and contacted them to suggest collaborating on a track. The project expanded to become an entire album, with Simon recording basic tracks with a variety of South African groups, then overdubbing vocals in the U.S.. Juxtaposed against the rootsy music are some of Simon’s best lyrics and vocals; occasionally plaintive, but more often conversational and vernacular (“it’s a turn around jump shot/it’s everybody jump start/it’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”, “sometimes I’m falling, flying/or tumbling in turmoil”).
Like Hearts And Bones, about half of the songs seem lightweight, but this time around they’re infectious rather than irritating. ‘I Know What I Know’ sounds awful on paper; Simon performs the backing track on a Synclavier, accompanied only by the bizarre vocals of General M.D. Shirinda And The Gaza Sisters, but it works wonderfully. It also serves as a reminder how timeless the remainder of Graceland is; by decamping temporarily from the U.S. Simon virtually escaped the 1980s production sheen altogether. Instead, Graceland is dominated by pretty guitars, and the occasional accordion. The best songs here are simply sublime; ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ encapsulates all the unique aspects of Graceland into one beautiful song, while the title track and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ both sound like instant, pervasive classics. My favourite Graceland moments include the astounding bass solo at the end of ‘You Can Call Me Al’ (created by reversing the solo in the first half to create the second half), and Simon’s impressive falsetto on ‘Crazy Love, Vol II’. If I was to nitpick I find ‘Gumboots’ (derived from a track on the cassette that inspired Graceland) a little sludgy, while I’d argue that ‘Homeless’, a showcase for Ladysmith Black Mambazo, doesn’t really belong on a Paul Simon solo album, but both songs are still eminently listenable.
In light of its virtues, I’d recommend Graceland to almost anyone; it’s often catchy and accessible, yet also unique, varied and deep. Additionally Graceland provided valuable exposure for South African musicians during the apartheid era, in particular launching an international career for vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.