Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Case for Graceland



I'll come right out and admit that my mother is one of those aging baby-boomers who loves Graceland. She listened to it constantly while I was growing up and, because of this youthful inundation, I will forever have a piece of my brain dedicated to recognizing the melodies and rhythms of this album. There I'll be years from know, mind eaten away by years of e-pleasure implant abuse, drooling and mumbling about my lost African love, last seen ducking into a New York taxi. The fact that it never happened will only make it seem more real--myth of fingerprints and all that...

To start with, I like the African musical elements on this album. They work well with Simon's lyrics. The shuffling rhythms add some much needed energy to counter the tendency towards lazy folk/jazz miasma that tarnished some of Simon's 70's work. The vocal harmonies add depth to the soft urban-noir tinge of Simon's lyrics. Before this album came out Paul Simon was dangerously close to becoming a sort of thinking man's James Taylor. Now he's become the has-been that puts ethnic music in all of his albums. I'd rather that than any sort of hyphenated Taylor construct.

Other than the world music angle, I don't see much of a difference between Graceland and Simon's other albums. Now, I love 'Kodachrome' as much as anyone, even Little Earl, but what's so edgy about it? Is it because he says 'crap' in it? The wonderful thing about Kodachrome is it's lack of nostalgia. He's not singing about how great black and white photography was. He likes color! Cheap accessible color! But then you get to Simon's other hits from the 70's and it's nothing but nostalgia. His experiments with other musical styles seem forced. Listening to 70's Paul Simon I find myself wishing for more 'Kodachrome's and less 'Loves Me Like a Rock's.

Little Earl is right about one thing, the production on Graceland is mediocre. You can tell that there's a lot of stuff going on, but you can't hear everything. This is a problem that is common to 80's recordings. They had so many tracks to work with so they added all kinds of bells and whistles but the early digital recording technology just mashed everything together. Still, for an 80's album Graceland doesn't sound terrible. 'Diamonds on Souls of Her Shoes' in particular stands out. It has decent sonic range and doesn't go crazy with the electro-accordian or whatever that is on 'Graceland'.

Little Earl's objection to the African musicians appearing on the album seems unfounded to me. Sure, there are problems in America but that doesn't have much to do with apartheid in South Africa. Bringing attention to one problem won't take attention away from the other. Simon brought good paying jobs to people that might not be able to get employment under a racist system. How can that be a bad thing?

Paul Simon never wrote a song as emotionally affecting as 'The Sound of Silence' or 'Bridge over Troubled Water' after he split from Garfunkel. But for my money, Graceland is the best solo Simon album overall. It is a bit boring in places but not every song can be 'Kodachrome'.

8 comments:

Little Earl said...

Rhymin' Simon! Rhymin' Simon!

How could you lose with an album title like that?

yoggoth said...

It does rhyme...

Now that we're on that subject did you read about the killing of Mullah Duddulah? He sounded like a terrible guy but what an unfortunate name for a warlord! His parents obviously didn't plan on him becoming a mullah.

Little Earl said...

Oh Lord - I mean Oh Warlord.

The key to Paul Simon's early solo work was that he'd just split with Garfunkel and wasn't really sure if the public would accept him as a superstar solo artist in his own right, so he deliberately avoided making any kind of big "Bridge Over Troubled Water" statements and just wrote about whatever the hell was on his mind at the time. That's why I love the title "There Goes Rhymin' Simon"; it's so silly and understated. I also love the album cover with the little visual puns of all the song titles. It was like, "Here's a bunch of songs I had lying around, and that's pretty much it." By the time of Graceland, when he had realized that the public would accept him as a superstar on his own, then he was beginning to think of himself again as "Voice of the Baby Boomers," but 1986 was not 1966, and he was out of touch (as were most Baby Boomers). "These are the days of miracle and wonder." 1986? Not for me - and probably not for most people. 1986 SUCKED. Only a certain audience at that time could have believed such a statement, and I don't need to tell you who that was. But on Rhymin' Simon he was just trying to be the voice of himself, and I can identify with that a lot more.

I wouldn't say he got nostalgic until "Still Crazy After All These Years," and even that song is pretty funny ("I fear I'll do some damage one fine day/But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers/Still crazy after all these years"). I don't see what's nostalgic about "Me and Julio" or "Mother and Child Reunion". I would say he didn't go James Taylor until about One Trick Pony, and yes, doing the African thing was more interesting than the James Taylor thing, but not as interesting as everybody says it is. I'm not saying that making music with South Africans was a BAD thing; I'm just saying that it wasn't that great either. If the 80s had been a more musically functioning decade, Graceland would have been seen as an interesting change of pace from an old favorite, not "Album of the Year" or whatever.

S&G on the whole is better than solo Simon, I agree, but some of his solo output definitely equals the best of S&G in terms of lyrical sharpness, timeless-sounding production, and sheer catchiness. I would stand behind most of There Goes Rhymin' Simon, "Mother and Child Reunion," "Me and Julio," "Slip Sliding Away," "Stranded in a Limousine," and "You Can Call Me Al." Interestingly, we both seem to share the same opinion of "Loves Me Like A Rock," although the line about the president is still funny.

yoggoth said...

"I fear I'll do some damage one fine day/But I would not be convicted by a jury of my peers/Still crazy after all these years?"

I don't get the joke.

Me and Julio, Stranded in a Limousine, and Kodachrome are great songs. Other than that, Graceland is the high water mark of solo Simon for me.

Peter Matthew Reed said...

I'll have to wait until I get home next week to listen to the vinyl copies of these albums I inherited from my parents (well, mum more specifically), but I am very interested in the burgeoning S&G vs. PS discussion. I used to be all about S&G...

yoggoth said...

Which albums did you inherit? I think S&G hold up pretty well. They definitely sound like music from the 60's, whereas The Beatles, Stones, and Velvet Underground sound more timeless. But I don't mind that.

Little Earl said...

Hey could you clarify just why you think S&G sound less "timeless" than the Beatles, Stones or VU, because to me they hold up pretty much about as well, if not better in some places. What does it even mean to "sound like music from the 60s" anyway? To me that just means that it sounds like good fuckin' music!

asafr said...

little earl needs a better stereo.
graceland was recorded analogue, with digital storage and mixing by roy halee who has some of the best ears in the business !