Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Genius of Graceland

Which is the greatest album of all time? A simple question but a source of endless debate in pubs, clubs, bars and bedrooms across the Western World and beyond. Sure, everyone has their own favourites but there seem to be a few which show up time and time again, renowned for their cultural significance, capturing the zeitgeist or their lasting influence on the sounds we hear around us. You know the ones: ‘Sgt. Pepper’, ‘VU and Nico’ ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ et al; colossi bestriding out musical landscape like the monoliths in Kubrick’s ‘Space Odyssey’. However for a collection of songs beautifully crafted, executed and unleashed upon an unsuspecting world I’d like to stand up and make the case for the masterpiece that is Paul Simon’s Graceland.

Coming into the record Simon was still best known for his poetic lyrics and turbulent relationship with his creative partner as one half of folk-duo Simon & Garfunkel. His previous solo album ‘Hearts and Bones’ had endured an unpleasant gestation; originally planned as a reunion with Garfunkel, after the pair fell out it stalled critically and commercially and Simon had begun to seem like an anachronism amongst the futuristic sounds of the 1980’s. Brooding over the disappointing public reaction to ‘Hearts and Bones’ he stumbled across a cassette of the Boyoyo Boys instrumental ‘Gumboots’ and a musical odyssey began that changed the way the West viewed African culture.

Controversially flouting a UN boycott on South Africa, he began to explore different styles of African music, working with the best musicians of the local scene and fusing their work with his own memories of growing up in America. He wasn’t the first to absorb African elements into western music but ‘Graceland’ certainly did more to popularize it than any other. How many other records could open with rhythms as rubbery and weird as ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ and go onto to sell 14 million copies worldwide?

Another reason for ‘Graceland’s brilliance is that it manages to be both a great collection of individual songs and an astounding narrative album. ‘Sgt Pepper’ and ‘VU and Nico’ are great records but it’s hard not to inch towards the skip button when you hear dirges like ‘Black Angel’s Death Song’ or the novelty jaunt of ‘When I’m Sixty Four’. Not so ‘Graceland’. Its 11 songs weave seamlessly together, taking in everything from penny whistle to conga drums and turn them into some of the most lavish yet exquisitely judged arrangements in the history of music. ‘I Know What I Know’ is at least as good as anything the Beach Boys ever produced but without the cloying 50’s nostalgia; gorgeously layered and fused to sound totally fresh.

It’s almost unfair to single out individual tracks as highlights but anyone who doesn’t crack a smile and head for the dance floor when they hear the distinctive intro to ‘You Can Call Me Al’ undoubtedly has a heart of stone. Inspired by composer Pierre Boulez mistaking Paul and his then wife, Peggy Harper’s names at a party, its spongy bouncing rhythms and sing-along chorus make it not only a culture-fusing, song-writing triumph but also a magnificent technical achievement. Bakithi Kumalo’s fretless bass solo was originally played forwards and then repeated in reverse to deliver one of the most distinctive grooves in the history of popular music and one that effectively serves as a template for Flea’s entire career. Regardless of what you’re doing or where you’re at when you hear them the incredible, acapella ‘Homeless’ with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the beautiful harmonies of ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’ are designed to whisk the listener far away. 

As McCartney, the Stones, the Who and co struggled to adjust to their diminishing popularity and middle-age spread, Simon chose to embrace it, creating a mature and stylistically diverse album, confident enough to wink and admit ‘every generation throws a hero up the pop charts’. The fascinating winding lyrics, interweave brilliant moments of flowing surrealism “There’s a girl in New York City/Who calls herself the human trampoline” with lines that cut to the heart of the human condition. The best known line "Losing love/ Is like a window in your heart/ Everybody sees you're blown apart," from the title track is restless and romantic, the kind of paean only the deftest lyricist could conjure but there are gems like that liberally scattered throughout. “You are the burden of my generation /I sure do love you /But let's get that straight” from ‘That was Your Mother’ and “This is the story of how we begin to remember/This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein” from ‘Under African Skies’ are just two of my favourites.

Its impact on everyone from Vampire Weekend to Gorillaz is still astonishing, a true tribute to the breadth and quality of the sounds Simon created but possibly the thing that most attests to its genius is that it’s a record that works in almost any situation. Feeling down? Then let the bubbling stomp of the title track lift you up. Need the perfect soundtrack to a summer party? Give it a spin. Or drift off to sleep to the folky harmonies of Los Lobos on ‘All Around The World’ Even when you can’t understand a word there’s something in those aching buoyant melodies that reaches out to the listener like little else.

Recently reissued for its 25th Anniversary, ‘Graceland’ stands as a triumph of risk-taking and ambition that gave a platform to African musicians and their culture, and produced acollection of unsurpassable melodies along the way. It’s a true timeless classic that looks and sounds as wonderful now as the day it was released. It’s probably the album I play more than any other and each time its brilliance is undiminished. Not just the Greatest Album in World Music history but the Greatest Album of all time. Still don’t believe me? Then I’ll let Joe Strummer have the last word

“I don't like the idea that people who aren't adolescents make records. Adolescents make the best records. Except for Paul Simon. Except for ‘Graceland’. That’s a new dimension”

Now one more time…

Max Sefton

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