[8 June 2012]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
There’s a great line during the last half of Paul Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble”, which incidentally also serves as the first track on what is the artist’s solo masterpiece, 1986’s Graceland. “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” he sings during the kind of up-tempo zydeco-meets-1980s-pop that makes the record so timeless. It works if only for how dismissive Simon delivers the phrase. The “a hero up the pop charts” portion is sung so quick and with so little emphasis that it becomes clear from the outset that one of the greatest-ever American songwriters has absolutely no interest whatsoever in popularity.
And going into the Graceland sessions, such may have even actually been true. His preceding album, Hearts and Bones, flopped, and as even Simon himself admits during Under African Skies, the documentary profiling the making of his iconic record included with the recently released box set marking the 25th anniversary of Graceland, it felt good to not have the pressure of a successful follow-up on his mind. “Hearts and Bones was a relative commercial failure,” he says in an interview during the film. “My reaction to that—rather than thinking ‘Oh, I’m dead’—(was) well, good. The next time I make a record, nobody will be looking over my shoulder, which is what they had been doing for years and years….They just left me alone and that was good.”
The irony, of course, is that Graceland turned out to be the exact kind of mega-hit he seemed to mock within the body of that first track. The album sold tens of millions of copies around the world and even won him a couple Grammys. It topped at least seven charts worldwide and the reality is that Graceland is the single piece of work that allowed him the ability to stage massive world tours for the latter part of the 1980s. Paul Simon became the cool kid at the school again after spending a couple months sitting with the geeks during lunch. Only this time, he was sure to keep in mind his new friends and acknowledge how satisfying it can be to share milk with the zit-faced 15-year-old he met during his time in exile.
Yeah, the singer has always presented his work with one eye slanted inward and a tiny smirk across his chubby face, but for the first time in his career, the joke wasn’t on us anymore. Graceland was simply his way of explaining the fact that understanding the jokes never truly granted people the type of superiority to which they felt entitled because of their affection for Bridge Over Troubled Water or There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Instead, this was an album aimed at proving exactly how irrelevant, crooked, and unfunny superiority and bitterness can be. You can point to its African rhythms. You can point to its feel-good vibes. You can point to its danceability. You can point to its originality and innovativeness stateside. You can even point to its always growing legacy. But whatever reason it was that you decide truly made Graceland one of the great American musical compositions, there is most certainly one thing that can’t be denied above all else: It’s an act of genius.
So it’s proper, then, that Paul Simon revisit the album 25 years later with this commemorative release featuring the original album in its entirety, a copy of Under African Skies, an extra five-song disc that doesn’t particularly shed too much light on what any Paul Simon fan may have already been privy to, and the 90-minute “African Concert” set from 1987 recorded in Zimbabwe and added here to showcase how extravagant his Graceland tour proved to be. And while some may feel this isn’t a necessary re-release, considering how three of the five bonus tracks were already featured on a 2004 reissue and the African concert has been available on VHS and DVD for some time now, the package does serve as a strong reminder of exactly how important and how innovative that album was and continues to be.
That notion is helped immensely with the inclusion of Under African Skies, the recently completed documentary that is currently spending the spring and summer on the movie festival circuit. Not only is it the only real bit of new footage or material this reissue offers, but it’s also a pretty comprehensive look at exactly how popular Graceland proved to be and how polarizing its political consequences remained for years after the album’s initial release.
Naturally, Joe Berlinger’s take on the story of how Graceland came to be is a tiny bit slanted in Simon’s favor, but even so, the film is nothing but enlightening because of how thoroughly annoyed the singer seems to be when talking about the problems surrounding it. It’s no secret that Paul Simon has never been shy when asked to explain how great he thinks Paul Simon is, and this documentary is another example of such an idiom. Those two aspects of his personality—a constant disgust with questions that force him to passively admit to mistakes and a full grasp on a somewhat well-deserved bigger-than-normal ego—make Under African Skies a fascinating piece of film.
Berlinger is no rookie to the documentary game—he served as a director on all the Paradise Lost films, for instance—and that seasoned approach serves both the artist and the story of his work well here. The meeting between Simon and Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, which was a group who long decried Simon and his work for not obeying the UN-sanctioned cultural boycott of South Africa by recording the bulk of Graceland in South Africa, is at times awkward and tense, though ultimately satisfying and introspective. The singer seems stern in his attitude that politics should have no bearing on art and the activist seems annoyed that the singer refused to adhere to the international policies that were aimed at eliminating excruciatingly and troublingly racist practices in South Africa. Of course, all’s well that ends well, and you’d be mightily disillusioned if you thought this documentary wasn’t aimed at illustrating as much, but the story in between is what truly proves noteworthy.
Both sides are represented (Simon’s adequately; Tambo’s not-as-adequately, yet still adequate, nonetheless) and the profile of exactly how divisive the making of Graceland was is valuable to both longtime Paul Simon fans and fringe admirers alike. Oprah Winfrey maintains it’s her favorite album ever, Whoopi Goldberg is crass and passionate in her defense of how brilliant she thinks it is and even Paul McCartney drops by to sing Simon’s praises. The best moments are the moments with the Graceland musicians, though. From some of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo guys explaining how much of a thrill it was to play Saturday Night Live, to Ray Phiri admitting he never wanted to take up residency outside of South Africa—even after Simon offered him the opportunity—the conversations with the other musicians who made the album possible provide some of the best moments the film offers. Only then do we get a feel from the artists who truly made the record as great as it is, and to see how grateful and fond they are of both the experience and the legacy of the work feels more reassuring than it does insincere.
When it comes to the overarching relevance of the documentary, though, one would be remiss if he or she didn’t discover exactly how much work went into making Graceland a reality. Considering the package comes with a copy of the initial release in its entirety, it becomes easy to see exactly how difficult it was for Simon and his team to piece together each song like a puzzle after the singer returned from his South African trip. As it goes, the star came back to New York with recordings that were glorified jam sessions at best, and a completely senseless collection of sounds at worst. The brilliance came into play when Simon had to concoct songs around those recordings. This particular element to the genesis of Graceland is more evident than ever with this package when considering the original release with the information we learn from Under African Skies.
Take, for instance, “I Know What I Know”. After seeing how the band improvised the riff that holds the song together during the documentary—and noting the consistent repetitiveness and loop-like quality of the final product—any listener gains a clearer perspective on how possible it was for the electronic drums to be added much later in the process, rather than during those initial recording sessions. Knowing what we know now (pun fully intended), it’s easier to pick out the awkward processed snare drum fills and sometimes unnecessary 1980s pop sounds. The same applies to “Crazy Love Vol. II”. The live drums—presumably recorded in South Africa—hold a simple kick drum pattern while the more elaborate sounds appear to be overdubbed. If nothing else, this collection sheds some light on those tricks that needed to be added later in order to ensure a presentable outcome.
As for the bonus disc, the alternate version of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (which, by the way, was one of the tracks released back in 2004) will forever be one of the most memorable things any world music fan can come across. Bare with just a simple bass guitar as a backdrop, the take highlights the delicacy of both the singer’s voice and his words. An instrumental, early version of “You Can Call Me Al”, meanwhile, is one of the new additions and while it may feel generic and unnecessary, it proves interesting to note how far that track has evolved from the time it was first blossomed. A nine-plus minute spoken-word track features Simon telling what is billed as “The Story of Graceland”, though after sitting through the 100-minute documentary, the tiny tale-telling session is admittedly deemed a bit irrelevant and shallow.
But even so, with the exception of the crutch of Under African Skies being Simon’s sit-down with one of his loudest critics during this particular era, the packaging here isn’t necessarily aimed at shedding new light on the album itself (if it was, maybe it would have at least mildly addressed the Los Lobos/“All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints” controversy that everyone still can’t seem to make heads or tails of a quarter of a century later). What its objective seems to be, however, is somewhat of a final, comprehensive word on what may have been the single best album of the 1980s.
And with that in mind, the release succeeds fantastically. Amidst all the turmoil and disagreement that surrounded Graceland when it initially hit stores was a timeless piece of musical composition that only seems to get better with time. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles says toward the end of Under African Skies, there was an initial feeling of inauthenticity surrounding the record when it first came out. “The whole project seemed a little odd. … You have this rich white guy singing on top of these South African singles. To me, it seemed kind of like the tourist’s picture”, he noted before conceding that it’s much easier to look back on it with high regard now, 25 years after the fact. “Now, I think he was right”, Pareles says. “He was ahead of me”.
But the truth is ... Pareles is probably right. It was much easier to ridicule the release when it first came out then, than it is now, after enough time has passed to add perspective to Simon’s work. With each year, Graceland as a whole seems to take on a new life. The album transcends generations. It transcends culture. It transcends genres. Hell—it transcends an artist who has made a career out of being transcendent. With Graceland, it was Paul Simon’s turn to be thrown up the pop charts, though it’s what he was able to do after making it back to the top that allows this record to age so gracefully.
This 25th anniversary package is proof that those subversive words with which Simon has become so brilliant at writing can actually still mean something to generations filled with both cool kids and nerds alike. And even if this ends up being the final word on exactly how much the artist in question owes to the creation of his finest work, this entire collection proves one thing: Paul Simon and Graceland will remain as one of the most relevant pop records of all time.