Paul Simon

Warner Brothers Records, 1986

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


One has to wonder if Paul Simon knew during the recording of Graceland that he was about to set the world of popular music on its ear.

Most people had written Simon off as a relic of the '60s and '70s; he hadn't had a real "hit" since the song "Late In The Evening", and he had barely survived what some people called career suicide with the movie One-Trick Pony. Simon's discovery of South African melodies thanks to a compilation album seemed to be the creative spark that he needed, and in 1986, Graceland was sent forth - arguably becoming Simon's best work of his career.

The album, in effect, served as a revelation to Simon of the unique power and artistry he has, as well as the sheer joys of the rhythms of South Africa to the rest of the world. Without songs like "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes," we might never have heard of Ladysmith Black Mambazo - and that would have been our loss. Thirteen years after its release, this album has lost none of its power - even if some of its references are a little dated.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The singles from this album are instantly recognizable, even today. "The Boy In The Bubble"- with Forere Motloheloa's frenzied accordion work opening the track - is still a delightful mixture of musical cultures that succeeds on many different levels. What seals the deal for this song - as well as the others on the album - is the use of South African artists instead of relying on studio hotshots.

Maybe some of the younger listeners won't understand the reference to the "baby with the baboon heart" (Baby Fae, in case you had forgotten), but the track's power is still as strong today as it was over a decade ago. Likewise, "You Can Call Me Al" is still a fun track to listen to, and has not worn out its welcome in the marketplace. While never released as a single, both "I Know What I Know" and "Gumboots" kick things into overdrive.

The peak of the set, of course, is "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes". The interaction between Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo - as well as the incredible guitar work of Chikapa "Ray" Phiri - is still enough to bring tears to my eyes in just the right setting. This is not Simon bastardizing the rhythms of South Africa; this is him embracing them and making them accessible for Westerners. Further proof is on the track "Homeless," which features Simon singing in the native language of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Just like Simon brought ska and reggae to people's attention in the early 1970s with the song "Mother And Child Reunion," he brings not only South African rhythms but also zydeco to listeners on Graceland. "That Was Your Mother" enlists the help of Good Rockin' Dopsie And The Twisters to show some people who otherwise wouldn't listen to zydeco on a dare just how festive and lively this genre of music is.

Simon does happen to create songs that have enough of a modern flavor to them to make sure that listeners aren't scared away by too many new musical concepts. The title track is a happy shuffle that features the Everly Brothers on backing vocals; Linda Ronstadt's contribution to "Under African Skies" is uplifting and beautiful.

Simply put, Graceland is perfect. Simon knew exactly how to shape the music into something of his own creation while not losing any of the original essence of the tribal rhythms. While you can derive some pleasure from the singles released off Graceland, this remains an album that must be experienced as a whole. No matter how many albums I listen to each month, Graceland remains one of my all-time favorites.

Rating: A

User Rating: A



© 1999 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Warner Brothers Records, and is used for informational purposes only.