Last night I watched a BBC Four documentary about the 25 year anniversary of Paul Simon’s Graceland. I think it was probably a repeat as I’m pretty sure the album’s anniversary was last year (I’m fairly certain I remember reading an article last summer about it) but, regardless of the timing, it reminded me once again of my deep love of this particular album.
There are very few albums where I feel every song is so complete I include the entire album on The Ultimate Playlist – but this is one such instance. (I’m very strict about Rule #5) There is an undeniable power that this album holds over me and I shall no doubt return to it again and again; confident each time of the enjoyment every song shall bring me.
When Graceland was first released I was 6 years old and it is truly one of the earliest and most compelling recordings to exist in the soundtrack of my life. My parents loved it and it was regularly played in the house and car through the mid-80s. I soaked it all in and continued to independently listen to the album myself as I was growing up. The album stayed with me through my late 80s pop years, through my 90s indie/Britpop years, through my subsequent classic rock exploration years, through my student clubbing days, through my naughties garage rock revival phase and now, finally, in my 30s as I grow my ultimate playlist and fall in love with an increasingly random and diverse range of music. My infatuation with the album has been constant, never wavering, in spite of what may be going on in my life or what my tastes in music at that time may be.
Being 6 years old at the time of it’s release, and too young to understand apartheid, the politics that surrounded the album was never an important part of the experience to me at all. It’s always been the lyrics, melodies and rythyms that has engaged and appealed to me so much. The BBC documentary I watched had a big focus on the politics and discussed at length the UN cultural embargo, the ANC and general political opinion that surrounded the album at the time. It even had Paul Simon in one section of interview essentially defend himself 25 years later to a prominent South African exile (his name escapes me) representing Artists Against Apartheid. This was all hugely educational for me; it was a historically significant system that I knew little about, however, it did little to change my appreciation of the music. I was left genuinely feeling that Simon had been attracted to something in the sound and feel of the music of the South African musicians he was checking out at the time and chose to integrate it into his musical vocab through collaboration with these artists (which is what I always thought was the case), just an interesting musical experiment mixing New York folk with traditional South African styles that produces a genius result.
I adore the lyrics on this album and have only appreciated them more and more as I have grown older. The lyrics and vocal melodies are so well tied together with the music it creates such an evocative atmosphere it sends me somewhere else entirely; I just disappear into it. The poetic imagery in every song is so interesting and engaging it makes the album a wonderful experience.
Musically the album is incredibly accomplished. The South African musicians that Simon collaborated with are all exceptional talents and Graceland is crammed full of evidence of this fact. As a guitar man I’m especially infatuated with the gorgeous little guitar riffs & licks, creative rhythm playing, and the dynamic bass lines. It is simply a display of outstanding musicianship. This wonderful musicianship of course includes the amazing a capella work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who hugely enhance the album with their warm, exceptional vocal work.
I could go on and on about Graceland, describing each song’s excellence in detail, but I’m going to conclude there and simply demand that you go away and get this album listened to and appreciate its greatness. I’m certain you will not be disappointed.