Embracing the Album: Graceland

Courtesy: Warner Bros.
Courtesy: Warner Bros.

We live in a world of short attention spans, and music is no exception. We’ve traded a CD player in the car for an iPod on shuffle and a record player in the house for a streaming service giving us songs on demand.

But some songs weren’t meant to be heard of out context. And some albums have gems hidden in the deeper cuts that get overlooked. Each column, we’ll look at a different classic album and focus on the tracks you don’t hear all that often, and the effect you get from hearing the works the way the artist intended. This time, we’ll take on Paul Simon’s classic: Graceland

Overview:

By the mid-80s, Paul Simon was already a fully established solo artist. But what I’ve always found interesting about him is that he seemed to write songs very impersonally. You listen to classics like “The Boxer” or “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and you don’t exactly get the idea he’s singing about his own life. He really breaks that mold with Graceland. I’m not saying he’d never written a song autobiographically before, but this album has a different tone. It also tackles his recent divorce from actress Carrie Fischer head-on, particularly in the title track.

This album is obviously known for its South African influence, and it’s one of the best examples of Simon incorporating a world sound into his writing. It was also something of a springboard in that regard, as Simon would continue to broaden his international sound on his next album, “The Rhythm of the Saints”.

Songs You’ve Heard:

Graceland – The title track about driving to Memphis following his divorce is the soul of the album, so it’s odd that Simon didn’t write the lyrics until after he came back from South Africa. It’s an interesting combination: A traveling-tune chorus with intensely personal verses about a heartbreaking split. “She says losing love is like a window to your heart/everyone can see you’re blown apart” is one of those lines that sticks with you.

You Can Call Me Al – The album’s biggest hit really feels like a misfit when you put it into context. While it’s a great song and is obviously catchy, it’s almost as if it was written to be the single.

The Best Song That Doesn’t Get Played:

Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – It always surprises me how many people haven’t heard this song, because it’s really one of the best snapshots of the South African sound Simon was going for on this record. Lyrically, it incorporates local culture. Musically, it reveals itself through a well-crafted introduction that transitions into the main body of the song with a catchy guitar riff. It’s almost like Simon is opening the door to the world he’s been recording in and inviting his listeners to come inside.

Songs Worth Going Back For:

The Boy in the Bubble – The album’s opener is one of the rare times Simon’s lyrics get expressly political. But the accordion intro is a sound the listener will get used to before Graceland comes to an end.

Under African Skies – The big, almost hollow drum beat that kicks off this track sets the tone for the second half of this album. You Can Call Me Al actually leads off the B-Side, but the sound of Under African Skies marks a notable shift. Linda Ronstadt joins Simon with haunting vocals on the track, and he wrote the second verse about her and her childhood experiences growing up in Arizona.

Conclusion:

Graceland remains one of the classic albums from one of America’s most beloved songwriters. The deeper tracks pick right up where the familiar ones leave off, and hearing the songs you know, in the context the artist intended, is well worth it.

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