In the early 1980s, Paul Simon was faltering. After a successful beginning with Simon and Garfunkel, he had broken off on a solo career in 1970. After four acclaimed and commercially successful albums, his sixth solo album, “Hearts and Bones,” was a disappointing failure. His marriage to actress Carrie Fisher fell apart. Depressed, Simon was searching for a new direction when he heard a bootlegged cassette of South African singers. Within a year he was in South Africa recording the most successful album of his career. This year, that album, “Graceland,” turns 30.
“Graceland” was not an easy album to produce. Initial sessions were recorded in Johannesburg, South Africa, and later tracks in New York City. The mastering of the album made analog to digital transfers necessary, and many of those had to be carried out numerous times for each new cut. In addition, each song underwent heavy editing, with complex echoes and delays added in production. And to complicate matters, Simon caused major controversy by collaborating with South African musicians. At the time, apartheid was still in full strength, and critics condemned Simon for breaking the cultural boycott imposed on the South African government. However, many supporters also noted he was bringing African music to the global stage, and claimed his support of such musicians would help break apartheid’s hold.
The lead track, “The Boy in the Bubble,” discusses terrorism and famine, but in a way that never becomes maudlin. The song is backed by a distinctive bass line—in fact, the prominence of the bass became a unifying theme of the entire album. “Graceland,” the title song, is about a pilgrimage to Elvis’ iconic ranch. It carries a country/R&B feel, and features bassist Bakithi Kumalo and guitarist Ray Phiri. “I Know What I Know” and “Gumboots” are upbeat love songs, both inspired by prolific South African music groups.
“Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” and “Homeless” feature a cappella choir, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. These songs are the most noticeably African on the album, with the deep, rich sounds of traditional singing backing Simon’s signature style: soft melodies and intricate, poetic lyrics. “You Can Call Me Al,” a jaunty, brassy track with an iconic penny whistle solo, became the most famous song from the album. “Under African Skies,” a duet with Linda Ronstadt, is a soft, pulsing song about beauty, love and hope. “Crazy Love, Vol. II” features the character of Fat Charlie the Archangel, who comments on the sadness of being in love. “That Was Your Mother” is a raucous zydeco tune about a father/mother meeting. “All Around the World, or the Myth of Fingerprints” feature Tex-Mex band Los Lobos in a loose, happy song about time and legacy. The moods of the songs are never consistent—Simon dips in and out of sadness and joy, but as a whole stays more to the joyous side. It is a fundamentally hopeful album.
“Graceland” has not one musical style; it has elements of zydeco, blues, South African choral singing, early rock and roll, brass bands and complex African drums. The result is an album that, while beginning from African roots, has a vastly more universal appeal. The joy of Africa shines through, flavored by steel guitars, saxophones and synthesizers, to produce an upbeat and vibrant work of art. After 30 years, it is not only an American cultural masterpiece, but a reflection of many cultures and styles coming together into one truly great work—a work the whole world can sing along to.