Friday, December 14, 2007

Paul Simon's Graceland

After listening to the pleasant, African-inspired pop of the band Vampire Weekend the last couple days, I was compelled to relisten to Paul Simon's Graceland, the record that everyone seems to mention when talking about this band. Considering how much everyone loves Paul Simon's definitive solo record, its really kind of a surprise that more people within the Indie music sphere don't attempt to emulate this sound. Perhaps it's because everyone's afraid that they'll miss the mark and end up in an overcommercial, Dave Matthews-ish territory? What does Graceland do that the others can't? How is it able to sound like a product of the 80's yet still seem fresh and not rooted in that decade? What other record from the last twenty-five years can be enjoyed so much by such a large cross-section of people?

First of all, let me state that I have certain sentimental reasons for loving this record. When I was 4 or 5 my uncle Ed bought this cd and played it for my brother, my cousin, and I. We fell in love with it and preceded to play over and over and over for years to come every time that my brother and I came to visit. Particular favorites were the songs "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" (mp3) and "I Know What I Know." Basically anytime Ladysmith Black Mambazo started doing anything in the background we went nuts and jumped all around the basement, attempting to song along to a style of music we had almost certainly never heard before. There's no doubt, for that matter, that Graceland was the first record I feel in love with.

And why shouldn't I have? The music still sounds great! Besides the obvious African roots of the the record, there is a straight-up tribute to Zydeco on the record as well (on the humorous "That Was Your Mother"), an appearance by Los Lobos on the final track ("The Myth of Fingerprints"), and even a little country on the painfully beautiful title track. This mix of sounds, maybe more than anything else, allows the album to achieve "classic" status. As it doesn't sound tethered to any particular era or genre, everyone is allowed to discover the album without any prejudice about what it should or shouldn't sound like.

That being said, there's no question that Paul Simon's vocals are the thread that holds this album together. I don't know how he does it, but there are few voices in pop music that sound more trustworthy. There's an underdog quality in the way he sings that makes you want to root for him and allows you to forget that he's a giant star making his 20th or so record. As I heard this record before I even knew who Simon and Garfunkel was, I've actually always preferred Paul Simon's solo music and singing voice to his more well-known sixties work (though "The Boxer," of course, is just about the greatest song ever written).

The lyrics are great, too, and have a pleasant mix of light and dark. The line about how the couple in "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" ending up "Sleeping in a doorway/By the bodegas and the lights on upper Broadway" was one of those lines that helped to frame New York in my young mind as an exotic, wonderful place where people party all night and sleep wherever they end up. Hmm...maybe that was true in the 70's and 80's? The song "Graceland" seems to be about the different ways that people try to overcome their grief, his particular method being a trip to Graceland. And I've always loved the way every verse of "You Can Call Me Al" starts off like the beginning of a joke ("A man walks down the street...")

Finally, who can dislike an album that brought us one the the funniest and strangest videos from the 80's?


Todd said...

Josh, we must be on a psychic wavelength. I listened to the Vampire Weekend CDR for the first time this week, and as soon it was over the very next thing I put on was Graceland. VW was nice, but Graceland just kills. It has to be one of the best album of the '80s and yet in no way is it representative of that decade. Plus it uses zydeco! I didn't even know what zydeco was when I was a kid.

"And I could say, 'Oo oo oo' as if everybody here would know what I was talking about." The reason you don't get many Graceland imitations is because not many people can sing a line like that and actually have people know exactly what he's talking about.

Anonymous said...

Todd you are right!

-Between my christmas songs i too have been listening to this album!! It was certainly THE album of my childhood (under say 12) and I think it's held together with songwriting. Like the line about sleeping in the doorway you mentioned, that kills too because its starts with "she said honey take me dancing" but they ended up just sleeping in a doorway. great line. Its fun to rediscover an album on different levels as you get older. finding clifton cheneir after knowing his name since you were 6, or just how good the line "who am i to blow against the wind" sums up the first guy/girl meeting. Ahh, i could go on an on. Great album, glad you brought it up!

ps-i would also suggest while in the mood, you download "obvious child" from his rhythm of the saints album, an album a full three tiers below graceland but with a few nice songs/lines if the mood strikes right. Like the chorus "i can't run but I can walk much faster than this"