The year I was born, Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland‘ sold 14 million copies worldwide. The next year it won a Grammy for Album of the Year, and then Record of the Year in 1988 for the title track. After that I heard “You Can Call Me Al” a lot growing up, and, because of its spectacular synth intro, filed it away as 80’s pop they still play on the radio. It wasn’t till high school, when I discovered the simple, folky songwriting masterpiece that is “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” that I began to go back and investigate the sometimes bizarre, sometimes perfect, but always inspired tracks on this album.
Now there’s a word that I find myself using again and again to describe them—magic. It’s not a particularly good word because it evokes absolutely nothing in the reader’s mind; but if you’ve heard an album with perfect chemistry, energy, a balance struck between modern and old-timey sounds, then you probably know what I mean by the word.
It is a rare album that combines African chanting and drumming with Sun Records-era strumming and funk-flavoured bass plucking. Simon’s choice to work with South African musicians, despite the world’s anti-apartheid cultural boycott, raised some controversy, but in the end the album introduced these musicians (some of whom would gain independent success, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo) to a global audience.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Graceland’s release, Legacy Recordings have issued various box sets, vinyl goodies, and bonus features. The completely remastered original album now includes 5 bonus tracks, including a keyboard demo for “You Can Call Me Al,” a quieter, funkier, bass-centric “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and an early draft of “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.”
The real gem is an audio narrative by Simon, discussing the writing process for “Graceland” (the song, not the album). He talks about the difficulties of working with non-western musicians (a problematic lack of minor chords), but also the invaluable perspective of hearing American country music as perceived by outsiders. Eventually the process lead to the classic ‘southern travelling music’ sound that flavours the title song, and suffuses the entire album as a result. Whether to Graceland or under African skies, the songs tell tales of wanderers and travellers, and the music mirrors this nomadic spirit.
The crowning jewel of the rerelease is a feature-length documentary making the film festival rounds now: “Under African Skies,” by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger. It chronicles the process, controversy, and success of Graceland, and follows Simon back to post-apartheid South Africa, 25 years after he first recorded there under international censure.
Even though the album was written about a very specific, turbulent time in world affairs, much of the subject matter remains (depressingly) relevant today. In terms of sound, ‘Graceland‘ manages an impressive feat: it recollects perfectly the decade in which it was recorded, with sly references to early 50’s country music, and at the same time doesn’t sound at all dated or unlikely now. Not something you can say about a lot of 25 year old albums.