|First posted 3/23/2008; updated 11/24/2020.|
Released: August 25, 1986
Charted: September 13, 1986
Peak: 3 US, 18 UK, 14 CN, 15 AU
Sales (in millions): 5.0 US, 2.2 UK, 15.6 world (includes US and UK)
Genre: pop/world music
Tracks: (Click for codes to singles charts.)
Total Running Time: 43:18
4.684 out of 5.00 (average of 19 ratings)
Quotable: “Graceland became the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured.” – William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide
About the Album:
In 1984, Paul Simon was reeling from his failed marriage to Carrie Fisher, a reunion with Art Garfunkel which soured, and the ho-hum reception of his album Hearts and Bones, which Robert Christgau said “was a finely wrought dead end, caught up in introspection, whimsy, and the kind of formal experimentation only obsessive pop sophisticates even notice.” VV Simon was musically rejuvenated by a bootleg called Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II. Heidi Berg, a singer-songwriter who had worked with Simon as a producer, loaned him the tape WK and, according to myth, Simon hopped a flight to Soweto immediately after hearing it “to learn more about the township jive called umbaqanga,” TL which Simon has called “the reggae of the ‘80s.” VV In reality it was a few months later before Simon embarked on his African pilgrimage. Nonetheless, it remains “the most spontaneous thing the world’s most rational songwriter is even rumored to have done, and that sense of liberation and adventure is all over Graceland.” TL
Simon requested Warner Bros. contacts to track down the artist responsible for the tape. WK When it was pinpointed as either South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo or the Boyoyo Boys, WK Simon was dismayed. The United States had imposed economic sanctions on South Africa because of its apartheid government. RV Simon said, “Too bad it’s not from Zimbabe, Zaire, or Nigera. Life would have been more simple.” VV Nonetheless, Simon knew he had to work with these artists. South African record producer Hilton Rosenthal made the arrangements for Simon and Roy Halee, the engineer for Graceland to go to Johnannesburg in February 1985 to spend two weeks recording. WK
The “former folkie” UT threw “his ears open to a host of new players and singers” TL and created “exotically fanciful collaborations” UT with the aforementioned Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Boyoyo Boys as well as Lulu Masilela, Tao Ea Matsekha, General M.D. Shirinda, and the Gaza Sisters. WK Simon also brought a trio of musicians back to the States to help him record – guitarist Ray Phiri, bassist Baghiti Kumalo, and drummer Isaac Mtshali. VV
Back in the States, he also worked with the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Los Lobos, and Adrian Belew, incorporating “a great number of musical styles, including zydeco, Tex-Mex and African vocal music.” NRR The mix of those styles with Simon’s “always perceptive songwriting” AMG made for “a fascinating hybrid that re-enchanted his old audience and earned him a new one.” AMG His introduction of world music into a pop arena gave listeners “that magical combination: something they’d never heard before that nevertheless sounded familiar.” AMG
“The South African angle…was a powerful marketing tool,” AMG but it wasn’t without controversy. The United Nations initially blacklisted Simon for violating the boycott. TL However, Simon’s relationship with the music was “deep and committed.” VV Not only did he pay the musicians triple-scale and give them composer credits, he brought Ladysith Black Mambazo to New York for a Saturday Night Live spot VV and brought them on tour.
The songs themselves are not political, for the most part. Simon professed, “I’m no good at writing politics.” VV There is “the protesty title Homeless,” VV which is “almost entirely a capella” RV and featured “stirring harmonies” VH1 from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, as did the “highly poetic Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” AMG Both were “exquisitely melancholic evocation[s] of African beauty and desolation.” VH1
“As eclectic as any record Simon had made,” AMG it also marked “a surprising new lyrical approach (presaged on some songs on Hearts and Bones):” AMG “Graceland was the first album Simon ever made in which the rhythm tracks were recorded first, and the exuberant, propulsive tempos make even his gorgeous lament ‘Losing love/ Is like a window in your heart/ Everybody sees you’re blown apart,’ seem buoyant.” TL
Songs like The Boy in the Bubble showed Simon had “evolved as a lyricist on this album with lines that took on an almost Dylan-esque quality.” RV The song’s “pensive refrain…was as hopeful and socially conscious as any song he would ever write: ‘The way we look to a distant constellation / That’s dying in the corner of the sky / These are the days of miracle and wonder.’” RV It is “his most acute and visionary song in many years.” VV
Simon largely eschewed “a linear, narrative approach to his words,” AMG and evoked “striking images and turns of phrase torn from the headlines or overheard in contemporary speech.” AMG He experimented with exotic rhythms and chord structures, RV such as on the “satiric I Know What I Know.” AMG
The title cut details a road trip “‘through the cradle of the Civil War’ to Elvis’ mecca” VV and hints “that somehow the world’s foremost slave state is a haven of grace: ‘Maybe I've reason to believe/We all will be received/In Graceland.’” VV The song won the Grammy for Record of the Year.
An element of humor shows up in the hit single, You Can Call Me Al. VH1 The song, which has been interpreted as being about midlife crisis, references an incident in which Simon and his then-wife Peggy were at a party and mistakenly referred to as “Al” and “Betty.” The video featured Chevy Chase lip-syncing Simon’s vocals while Simon lip-synced the backing vocals and played various instruments. The two men – marked by a foot in height difference – eventually dance to the song together.
Initially the song failed to reach the top 40 in the U.S., but after Graceland won the Grammy for Album of the Year, the song recharted, peaking at #23. Outside the U.S., it made the top 10 in several European countries.
“It is difficult now to recall the enormous impact of this trans-cultural album,” VH1 but Graceland “became the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured.” AMG With it, Simon created music “heard across the globe” AZ and it still reaches “generations of music enthusiasts…unaware of how pivotal that one album was” AZ in birthing “the idea of World Music.” AZ
A 2004 reissue added alternate versions of “Homeless,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints.” A 2012 reissue included those as well as demo versions of “You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love” in addition to Paul Simon telling the story of Graceland.