Real-Time Review: Graceland by Paul Simon
The Boy in the Bubble: Look, I don’t listen to this kind of music. I don’t do crossover traditional sounds, I don’t do soft rock from the eighties. I like snark, spiky guitars, and honeyed Glaswegian male vocals. But this album is about the best thing I’ve ever heard- me and my Dad used to drive around in his convertible showing each other music when I was in my late teens, and I was smitten with this album after he showed me this song. It’s a powerful opener; rich with those stunningly incisive and creative lyrics, layered with pops of bass and acoustic guitar, it’s scene-setting crane shot that defines the sound that’s to follow.
Graceland: The title track is probably one of the most universally likeable things I’ve heard and introduced others to. Everything about this is perfect; that build in the intro that comes from simple guitar into a dreamy bass and percussion mix, matched by Paul Simon’s vocals- not wildly strong in themselves, but fitting perfectly with the earnest, honest nature of the sound. There’s something so transcendent about this song- it has an all-encompassing feel to the themes of heartbreak and redemption. Now shut up and listen to it.
I Know What I Know: This is the first track on the album to make it’s crossover sound evident- a clash of folky guitar and funky bass, mixed with those utterly genius lyrics-look, I go on about lyrics a lot, but Paul Simon just does them better than anyone else. He writes properly timeless songs that don’t suffer from sounding too vague, which is a talent in and of itself.
Gumboots: Starting this off with syncopated guitar and bass, the album really picks up pace with Gumboots. It’s flirtatious and properly playful,with those awesome brass licks over the chorus. It says a lot that this would be by far the best song off any other album, and passes almost under the radar here.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes: This is a strange song; almost cut down the middle, with the first half dedicated to lush African chorus lines and an acapella retelling of the rest of the number. What it then kicks into is a bass-heavy, joyful number that betrays just how good Simon was at putting together songs. It’s a number that washes right over you, but actually contains hours of work in the form of an intricate bassline, a bunch of percussion, and little flourishes of brass to boot.
You Can Call Me Al: This is built off a big synth riff, that has no right to be in a song about existential middle age angst, but works. And I really don’t think that any song with a whistle solo deserves to be as fucking excellent as this is; add to that Simon’s best vocal work on the album and a ten-second long, utterly brilliant bass solo and you’re in the money.
Under African Skies: A reminder as to why this album was a classic, Simon puts in some stunning vocal harmonies and allows the music to take centre stage, building to a properly breathtaking finale. Frankly, I’m too busy listening to this to write that much, and I suggest you do to. Give it till the start of the first effervescent chorus to be taken in.
Homeless: Hey, Ladysmith Black Mambazo! They came to my local theatre once! They’re just as good here as they were then in an almost entirely acapella song that’s an exploration and expression of how gorgeous their music is for an American audience who didn’t know it at the time. Simon takes a backseat for this lusciously constructed number, and it works.
Crazy Love, Part II: The back half of a love story that went wrong, Crazy Love is a light-as-air number whose feet never seem to touch the ground. There’s a grace (take one shot for my shameless punning) to this one, thanks to a light touch on the bass, that give it an elated atmosphere despite the miserable subject matter.
That Was Your Mother: This has the feel of a fifties rock song that’s not been taking it’s ADHD meds, with peppy, bouncy, almost jittery percussion and an utterly joyous Paul Simon taking the front seat once again, with eyebrow-raising innuendo and a self-aware ballad feel about it.
All Around the World, or The Myth of Fingerprints: The album comes to a close with this magnificent track, featuring Los Lobos of La Bamba fame. Their group-guitar sound is present here, offset with accordions and chunky bass. It’s basically a nonsense number in terms of lyrics, but it’s impossible not to smile when you hear this number. A perfect way to close out a perfect album.