I have some of the ambivalence about Graceland that many politically-concerned listeners have expressed. I admire Paul Simon’s New York craftsmanship in composing infectious, compelling pop melodies, arrangements, and lyrics; his work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always well done. And I don’t begrudge him the brilliant contribution that his African colleagues made to the album; that would be a weird form of racism (“no, you may not record with African musicians, white man”). Nor do I want simply to indict him of exploitation or inauthenticity. I gather that the performers all appreciate the Western audiences’ attention that he brought to their work, and I haven’t heard that any of them grouse about working with him. The album is a stunning gesture of incorporation; it’s a Paul Simon album, but it’s an African-flavoured Paul Simon album, and that’s just kinda weird.
And he pulls it off, by and large. As I get older, I remember a smaller and smaller proportion of the tracks I hear, but Graceland has impressed itself on me, track after track. Well done, sir!
Simon being a consummate musician and craftsman, the album abounds with compelling touches, but there’s just one that makes my heart gasp every time I hear it (and I’ve gone back to listen several times over, to make sure of what I’m hearing). “You Can Call Me Al” wins much of its audience, I suppose, with the whimsical-nonsensical lyrics playing over a bed of rich pop hooks (“bed of hooks” — I’m going to
remember reuse that phrase), or the charming video with Chevy Chase cheerily miming/lip-synching the lead vocals as Simon sits dolefully beside him, pushed to the margin during his own song.
The melody prances blithely along, with the African contributions held in the background: a few “Aaa-ohhhms” in the vocal tracks, and the irrepressibly funky rhythm tracks. Over the top, though, the horns and synthesisers and guitars sound mostly like an ordinary, jazzy Paul Simon number, and the very Manhattanite lyrics affirm that familiarity of the most prominent instrumental tracks. At the first bridge, the recording introduces a pennywhistle break to great effect — that’s fine, but it’s at the second bridge that the arrangement makes room first for a drum break (is that Isaac Mtshali, or Ralph Macdonald, or both?) and then the marvellous moment when Baghiti Kumalo tears off a breath-taking lightning-like bass line. Oh, my goodness! The last few notes sound as though they’re going backwards, presumably through studio manipulation, but that short break recast the whole track for me. I loved going back and hearing it several times over, alone and in the full context of the song, in order to write it up for the blog. Mmmmm.