Monday, May 14, 2007

The Paul Simon Fan Who Doesn't Really Like Graceland

("You got a problem, Little Earl?")

Hear me out, folks. Now, I love Paul Simon's solo career as much as anybody. Singer-songwriter albums don't get any better than There Goes Rhymin' Simon, for one thing. And no else could throw out a piece of offbeat New York whimsy like Simon could with “Stranded In A Limousine” (a lesser-known gem from his 1977 Greatest Hits, Etc. collection). But as much as I've tried to warm to it, I don't really care too much for Graceland.

Yeah, it's a good album, don't get me wrong. But the critical line on Graceland is that it's a late career masterpiece – one that not only revitalized Simon's career, but also introduced African music to mainstream pop audiences. Maybe it is a masterpiece. But it's not a masterpiece that I find very interesting.

Some of my objections might sound like nitpicking to certain fellow Paul Simon fans. I can hear their slightly mellow responses already: “What's the problem, dude? Who doesn't like Graceland? His lyrics are great, the songs are catchy, and the African thing was so new and fresh.” I do not wish to diminish the pleasure that these fans might receive from Graceland. I would just like to point out a few things that haven't really been said about the album.

Cheap Shot #1: Graceland is the epitome of Aging Baby Boomer Music.

Perhaps there are many here among us who would take the description “Aging Baby Boomer Music” as a compliment. This is not my intention.

I do not require every single popular musician to be edgy, outrageous, wild, avant-garde, rebellious, counter-cultural, etc. But music has to have SOMETHING going for it, something a little bit energetic and maybe even thorny and restless. Pre-Graceland Paul Simon is actually an excellent example of a relatively mellow musician who still had an edge. If anything, his edge was all the more effective because of his collegiate and non-rebellious image. Who didn't prick up an ear when they first heard “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It's a wonder I can think at all”? My God, did you hear the way he emphasized the word “crap”? My little Paulie? Who taught him such filthy language?

Mellowness is a wonderful thing in life. It can be a wonderful thing in music as well. If anything, Paul Simon was always so refreshing because he was much more thoughtful and reasonable than many of his reckless and somewhat arrogant rock contemporaries. The key was, any less of an edge and Paul Simon's music threatened to tumble into a bottomless cavern of blandness.

And that cavern, my friends, is Graceland.

I can almost see an aging baby boomer approaching me now, waving his or her arthritic finger, explaining to me that I possess the foolishness of the young person who thinks that all art needs to be confrontational and violent, because “they think that's what's good for the world.” As aspiring rock critics go, I'm probably more aligned with the mellow baby boomer than most. But Jesus, Graceland is SO BORING. Thoughtfulness doesn't always have to be boring, you know. A perfect illustration of this, actually, is EARLY PAUL SIMON.

What happened to the guy? Did he just get swallowed up in an endless sea of cocktail parties, award shows, all-star benefits, poetry readings and TV appearances? He didn't have to get so bland, did he? It's not a requirement of aging, is it? Look at Neil Young. There we go. Now there's an aging baby boomer I can get behind. Or Tom Waits. Instead of getting mellower, he just got crazier and crazier. Even Billy Joel, who isn't nearly as critically respected as Paul Simon is, at least retained a sense of restlessness and atttitude in his last recordings – which might make him an easier target for rock critic jibes, but, to these ears at least, makes him a lot less boring.

Graceland is the sound of total complacency. Maybe the guy had problems in his life, but you couldn't tell from the music. The lyrics are clever; you'll get no argument from me. But they also sound like the thoughts of a guy who has too much time to think about silly things. That's not the worst crime in the world, I guess. But it doesn't exactly make for thrilling music, either.

Cheap Shot #2: The African Thing

Buckets of ink were spilled in 1986 over how amazing and daring and original it was for Paul Simon to recruit a bunch of African musicians to play on his record. My response is to wonder why he didn't feel like engaging instead with contemporary African-American music, which was probably much more interesting, edgy and relevant at that time than traditional African music was. Traditional African music was exactly the kind of African music that white aging baby boomers could get behind - the kind of thing that would seem exotic and relevant without actually being that exotic or relevant. You didn't see them warming up to Boogie Down Productions, for example. Or Prince, even. I doubt Paul Simon did it intentionally, but the whole “I'm gonna go to Africa and get into the music of other cultures” just seems like another thing a white aging baby boomer with a lot of time on his hands would do. What about African-Americans? They weren't doing so hot in the 80s there. They kind of needed some help. Naw, naw, let's go to Africa instead and spread the boring-ass music of the side of Africa that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. No Fela Kuti for us, thank you. Don't get me wrong, Fela Kuti kind of seems like an angry revolutionary asshole. Maybe, but at least his music isn't as boring as Graceland.

Just think of the title. All I can remember from my visit to Graceland was how shockingly poor and predominantly black the surrounding neighborhood was. You think any of those black people gave a shit about Elvis? I'm not saying they should have and I'm not saying they shouldn't have. But the fact of the matter was, I'm not sure these thoughts were occuring to Paul Simon as he was driving with his kid to Graceland, humming the lyrics to his next gold record. Yeah, yeah, Paul Simon can sing about whatever he wants. He has no obligation to shed light on the injustices of the world. But I'm actually kind of curious what black people think of this album. My hunch is that they're not too big on it, but I could be wrong.

Cheap Shot #3: The 80s sucked

For reasons that are partially clear and partially unclear to me, the 80s were a big black pit of crappiness - at least in terms of popular culture, they were. Mainstream music was too boring, underground music was too extreme. In such a climate, I can see how Graceland would seem like a masterpiece. But twenty years on, I don't think it holds up all that well. Beats me if I know why (I'm not a recording engineer), but most attempts to record acoustic-based music in the 80s now sound dated and lifeless. Hey, everything goes in cycles. In the early 70s, I guess they couldn't help recording their music so well, because the equipment had just been invented, damn it. Or maybe they just had higher standards. Don't believe me? Put some headphones on. Listen to “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes,” and then listen to “Kodachrome.” Yeah. You know what I'm talking about. My God, from its very first notes, it's like “Kodachrome” just springs to life. There's all kinds of shit hitting you from all directions: multitracked acoustic guitars and pianos, drums that bounce across the stereo channels, too many vocal harmonies to count, and so on and so on. No one ever talks about how well-produced early Paul Simon is, but ladies and gentlemen, the proof's in the pudding. It helps, of course, that the song happens to be great, but you can have a great song and still lose the magic in the studio. My point is, popular music is the whole package. If you don't put some effort into the production, you're gonna lose me. A few artists can get away with this, I think. But not Paul Simon. And certainly not in the 80s.

So there you have it. Call me a curmudgeon if you wish. I'd like to make it clear, if I haven't already, that I don't have anything against Paul Simon as a person. I'm simply casting my vote against Graceland being a timeless classic of our time. Its very inoffensiveness...kind of offends me. But don't worry about me too much, I'm not losing any sleep over it. Besides, there's a couple of songs, at least, that I really like, and you can probably guess which ones. Spared from my purge against Graceland: “You Can Call Me Al” and “I Know What I Know.”

Why? Because these two songs are at least energetic and funny. Granted, they are not as energetic and funny as “Kodachrome.” But they are memorable songs and worthy of remaining in my mp3 files. Listen to this:

She said there's something about you
That really reminds me of money
She is the kind of a girl
Who could say things that
Weren't that funny
I said what does that mean
I really remind you of money
She said who am I
To blow against the wind

Hey! Now there's the Paul Simon that I remember! How about that? The album needed a lot more of that, and a lot less

Joseph's face was black as night
The pale yellow moon shone in his eyes
His path was marked
By the stars in the Southern Hemisphere
And he walked his days
Under African skies

Yaaaaawwwwwwnnnnnnnnn. Somebody wake me up when it's over.

Alright, alright, I admit it. I just hate Graceland because it's the kind of album that all those Baby Boomer parents used to listen to with their perfect Baby Boomer kids that I just couldn't relate to at all.

But does that mean it's actually good and I just dislike it for stupid reasons? The world will never know.


yoggoth said...

See above for better opinion.

Little Earl said...

Yes, thank you.