One of my favourite parts of getting to interview artists is asking them about the music they love. This week’s Bucket Tracklist entry comes from just one of those instances, when I asked Emily from The Staves (an amazing group you should definitely listen to) what her ultimate album recommendation was, and she suggested Paul Simon’s Graceland. Before listening to this album in full, my exposure to Simon had mostly been through Simon and Garfunkel, or his more famous singles (Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, The Boxer and Graceland’s You Can Call Me Al to name a few). Coming out the other side, I think it’s important to listen to the album in full, as the tracks work together to create a snapshot of a different time, and a different culture.
The album itself is an exploration of the music of South Africa, which apparently Simon started listening to after a period of post-divorce depression. He spent two weeks recording in Johannesburg, the results of which formed the base of the record. This move was, at the time, an incredibly controversial move, ignoring the cultural boycott of South Africa during the years of Apartheid. Moreover, many argued that the album was exploitative appropriation of South African culture. Whether or not you agree with those interpretations is up to you; at the time, the objections obviously didn’t affect many, as the album was a commercial hit, becoming Simon’s most successful record, and winning Grammy of the Year 1987.
There are tracks on the album which feature the traditional African music such as zydeco, isicathamiya and mbaqanga, Homeless, a personal favourite of mine, being one. There are also tracks which are the classic ‘mainstream’ Paul Simon sound such as You Can Call Me Al (which, incidentally, is one of the ultimate feel good tracks). The genius of Graceland, therefore, lies in that fact that it’s something you’ve never heard before, which also sounds vaguely familiar. In many tracks, such as Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes, the American/African mix is seamless, with the more traditional African music - and voices - adding texture and depth to songs that really benefit from it.
Watching these performances live (which I would highly recommend) there is a really strange mix of the well produced and meticulously planned staging of Simon and the traditional dance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo which is actually kind of fascinating. As much as I want to be politically right on, I have to admit I absolutely love the juxtaposition of these two styles from opposite ends of the music spectrum. On this track, LadySmith’s voices are completely stunning. Simon’s voice is the perfect softness for this kind of album, with a malleability that means it fits well with the traditional instrumentation beneath it, as well as the heavier guitar riffs. As usual with Paul Simon, the lyrics for this album are interesting and mostly excellent, seamlessly mixing the mundane with the abstract: “As if I’d never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead, and said losing love is like a window in your heart: everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody sees the wind blow.”
Overall, I have to say I’m surprised this album received the commercial success it did; if it was released today, I’m sure it would be a shoo in for the Mercury Prize in that it’s new, experimental and completely original, but I never would have expected a Grammy. For me, the more I listen to these tracks, the more I like them, and there are definitely some making it onto my playlists. I do think, however, that Paul Simon’s voice is so recognisable that you have to like it straight away to fully enjoy this album. If you can get behind that, as so many have before you, then this will be a fantastic album for you to listen to and learn to love. Even if you can’t love the album as a whole, the simple experimentation factor makes it, in my opinion, worth a listen.