Counterbalance No. 76: Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’

Paul Simon
Warner Bros.

Klinger: Graceland is another one of those albums that came out my freshman year of college, so the temptation is certainly there to yammer on about that magical, terrifying period in my life—how this album was the soundtrack to my first fumbling attempts at a grown-up relationship and all the rest of that nonsense. I’ll spare you and our readers that, though, and save it for my ponderous coming-of-age novel.

Instead, I’ll say that the key to understanding the greatness of Graceland (and make no mistake, greatness abounds) is recognizing just how sorry a state Paul Simon’s career was in by the mid-1980s. After taking the second half of the ’70s off, he returned to deliver two fairly colossal flops—the 1980 film/album One Trick Pony and 1983’s Hearts and Bones. Now, there are great songs on both records, but there’s also a sense that Simon had given over to a certain fussiness that was sapping the energy from his music. By the time Graceland came out, people my age generally thought of him as a purveyor of AM-radio mellowosity—way hipper than John Denver, but only slightly hipper than James Taylor. That’s why Graceland blew us away. It was as much a revelation for us as hearing that Gumboots tape was for Simon himself.

Mendelsohn: I don’t think there is any question that Simon created something almost otherworldly with Graceland, connecting with a vast swath of the music-consuming public—including a very impressionable six-year-old. And since you won’t get into your coming-of-age story, I might as well indulge. I was just a kid when this album hit and since Simon was making music for people like my parents, they went out and bought it, which inevitably led to me hearing it quite often.

Graceland was the first album that really captured my imagination. At first just because I liked singing along with “You Can Call Me Al” in the back seat, but as I grew up I always returned to it. When I was a little older and my mom told me to put some music on the house stereo on Saturday afternoons, I’d pick Graceland. When I got my first car, I stole my parents’ cassette of this record and denied all knowledge of its disappearance. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I truly began to understand the record because you need a little bit of living before it reveals of off it secrets. Regardless, it has always been a musical constant in my life.

Sometimes this Counterbalance project feels a lot like having to travel constantly for work. Each week it’s a different city, a different record. For me, Graceland is like going home again—wandering down familiar streets and reconnecting with old friends. I’ve enjoyed this last week immensely, Klinger; it had been a while since I had visited Graceland. But now that we are actually here, talking about this record, the apprehension is starting to creep in. I’m worried that our ensuing dissection of Graceland may dampen the golden haze of memory that surrounds this album in my mind. This record is beautiful and complicated and looms large in my musical past. So where do we begin?

Klinger: I think we can just dive right in, because I think parsing Graceland for what makes it great has actually increased my enjoyment of the album. And a big reason why is because there’s so much joy throughout the entire experience. Granted, this is a Paul Simon album, so it’s a joy that’s infused with introspection, melancholy, and self-deprecation, but we’ll take it where we can get it.

And I think a lot of that comes from Simon’s own sense of discovery. He had worked with musicians from other cultures before, from Los Incas on “El Condor Pasa” to Jimmy Cliff’s band on “Mother and Child Reunion”. But on Graceland, Simon went to greater lengths to immerse himself in African musical styles, and in the process rethought his entire songwriting process. After spending a decade writing songs with increasingly complex chord progressions to back up his melodies, he started beginning with the track—often involving simpler chord progression—and layering his lyrics over the top. The result is immediate in the first track—”The Boy in the Bubble” weds wordplay with a rhythmic propulsion that had been somewhat lacking in Simon’s previous work. In doing so Simon arrives at an approach that’s both more immediate and more universal.

(Major credit goes to bassist Bakithi Kumalo, whose work throughout the album is nothing short of inspirational. The delightful solo on “You Can Call Me Al” where the second half is the first half played backwards is cool enough; the fact that he could quite nearly replicate it live is astonishing.)

Mendelsohn: Simon certainly went on a journey of musical discovery in order to make Graceland. He recorded in several different studios with an array of different contributors, gleaning whatever he could from them before pressing it to wax under his own name. It worked incredibly well (maybe not so well for Los Lobos) and flows nearly seamlessly from track to track, which, when you consider the scope and geographical reach of this project, is no small feat to accomplish.

The key to that success, as you noted, was the rhythmic propulsion. Simon sought out a style of music that was much closer to the streets, much closer to the hearts of people who aren’t concerned with music as a way of making a living but more as making a connection with each other. The rhythmic nature of the album forces a collective experience upon the listening populace. I don’t want to use the word “primal”, because that would do a disservice to such a modern record but the base rhythmic nature of the music draws the songs down to a common denominator before exploding them back into a flurry of pop flourish. That baseness is present even in “Graceland”, which may be the one song on this record that doesn’t fit neatly with the others. But there is still that rhythm, driving the song as Simon wanders through his introspection, painting vignettes with snippets of words and melody.

Klinger: Right, even though Simon’s lyrics really are as erudite as they had been in the past, here he uses significantly simpler chord changes (“That Was Your Mother” is a three-chord number, for example). In interviews, Paul Simon has expressed puzzlement that the title track resonated so deeply with people while earlier efforts that cover the same emotional territory — the song “Hearts and Bones”, for example — failed to connect on the same level. I think he need look no further than the ’50s-style chord changes he employs so beautifully. The instrumentation might be dressed up in African (or Zydeco, or roots-rock) garb, but the throughline of simplicity sells a line like “Losing love is like a window in your heart” better than any diminished 7th over 9th chord could.

In a sense, then, Simon’s back to basics approach was a gutsy move. It kind of reminds me of the way Miles Davis took jazz away from the complexities of bop and toward the modal style heard on Kind of Blue. In doing so, he created music that was more accessible and ended up having a far greater impact. Still, I recall that Gracelandstirred up a good bit of controversy for what was perceived as skirting the edges of the UN cultural boycott against South Africa. Simon had to have been aware of that when he brought Linda Ronstadt in to sing on “Under African Skies”. Ronstadt had performed in South Africa in the early ’80s, incurring a great deal of wrath (and very nearly getting called out in an early version of “Sun City” before cooler heads prevailed). But Simon clearly understood the need for a shot at redemption, and by offering that to Ronstadt, it seems to me he added another key theme to Graceland.

Mendelsohn: Looking back at it now, I still don’t know what the problem was. Yes, the UN had placed a cultural embargo on South Africa, but Simon went in looking for the music of the streets and inherently the music of the oppressed, the music used to fight the shackles of apartheid. In the end, Graceland probably brought more attention to the gross inequality of the situation by featuring native South African artists. I wasn’t old enough to go in for the controversy. I was too wrapped up in the catchy melody and the inescapable rhythm. And as much as I appreciate the redemptive quality of this record and Simon’s unending meting out of those dead-on relationship truisms (“Crazy Love, Vol. II” may be his finest example), I’m still drawn in by the melody and rhythm. And that always leads me back to “Homeless”. Whenever I return to this record I always drop the needle on “Homeless” first because at loud volumes there is nothing that can stand next to the simple power of the voice.

Klinger: That’s for sure—and the voices of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were like nothing most Americans had ever heard, although the same could be said for African music in general. And yeah, I think for all the curiosity about the distinctive instrumentation, Graceland is an album about the voice. Paul Simon’s efforts gave his audience access to a lot of voices they’d never encountered before. In the process he ended up finding a new voice of his own.