Paul Simon - 'Graceland'
Rating: 8 on a scale of 10, B+ on an A-B-C scale.
Simon and his buddy Garfunkel were one of the Big Three classic artists my parents introduced me to when I was just a small child. So, many years later, when I stumbled upon this album in a high school classmate's house, I was understandably eager to take it back home, load it into my Phillips tape deck and let the sounds mangentically encoded upon the tape wash over my ears. I was quite pleased by what I heard - the vocals were melodic and gripping, in that wimpy-but-brainy way Simon is known and loved for (he's sort of the Woody Allen of popular music, in a way), the lyrics were well-crafted and evocative. The music was nice, too - a rather groovy soft-rock with some nice instrumentation. A few songs into the album, though, I was really blown away. I can't recall if it was all the African girls chorussing on 'I Know What I Know' or all the African guys chorussing on 'Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes'. Suddenly the extra grooviness and trace of instrumental quirk underlying the melodic pop/rock fell into place. This was Paul Simon turning in a very creditable solo album, indeed (one that has further risen in my opinion as I encountered some of his less successful previous solo ventures) but also one that was a bit more than just a Paul Simon album.
Of course, the phrase 'world music' has become shorthand for milking ethnic music for exotica value and cheap hippiefied human-family sentiments by now, and anyway Simon isn't Peter Gabriel, but forget about that and what you're left with is pretty decent. A mid-career artist not quite reinventing but certainly refreshing himself with an infusion of exotic styles and musicians, and basically creating an album that retains his own identity all over it, with a bit of extra spice for added appeal. It's also got shades of rootsy US music, zydeco and southern styles that are closer home to Simon and also gel rather well with the African stuff. Everything's founded and capped with Simon's own immaculate songwriting and most of the songs would have, with slightly more banal arrangements fit lyrically onto one of his musically weaker albums.
Not all - Homeless and Under African Skies are the two songs most directly lyrically inflenced by Simon's interaction with black South African musicians in the apartheid era, and much of Homeless is pure African vocal music. 'The Boy In The Bubble', 'Graceland', 'I Know What I Know', 'You Can Call Me Al', 'Crazy Love Vol 2', 'That Was Your Mother' and 'The Myth Of Fingerprnts' are all middle-aged ruminations on old loves, past times, relationship troubles, feelings of alienation, affirmations of identity, nostalgia, reflections on the state of the world and so forth. Standard middle-aged guystuff, but bundled up with verve and sensibility. There are some great lyrics - you could just sit down with the lyric sheet for an hour or so and ponder over its poesies, if you wanted to. It's not TS Elliot, but it is Paul Simon, and it's not for nothing that I studied some of his lyrics in poetry classes in college.
The music is mostly mellow, but memorable, with the requisite hooks and melodies. Some of songs are relatively jumpy with ultra-catchy choruses - 'You Can Call Me Al', 'Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes' and 'That Was Your Mother'. There are no weaker songs that let the material down, although 'All Around The World' is lyrically vauge, even if it is very pretty. The songs are great at evoking moods without drifting into a curdy ambient murk, and while I wouldn't call it an awe-inspiring masterpiece, it is a very good album. Full marks to Simon for taking it up a notch or two just in time to boost a sagging career and for releasing one of the most genuinely creditable albums by a classic artist in the 80s. This isn't even close to embarassing, and it's actually good enough to justify the feelings of awed anticipation I experienced all those years ago when I discovered it in my classmate's house.
The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: Mature older-guy soft rock with musical ambition and lyrical grace. Good deal, but don't forget to be good and take a spoonful of Ramones the morning after.