Lost In Music: Stuart Mason travels to Graceland via Johannesburg

Stuart Mason 9 June 2009

Paul Simon – Graceland

Sometimes I think that if Graceland were a person they would be relentlessly upbeat to the point of infuriating, and like exercise. The sun seems to shine on every song, with Paul Simon’s largely South African band joyfully throwing around buoyant rhythms and airy slices of guitar.

Perhaps this is surprising, as most of the album was recorded during apartheid with black musicians in Johannesburg. But then again, music has often been defiantly upbeat in the worst of times; in the same week that Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech, Stevie Wonder was topping the Billboard charts with ‘Fingertips Part 2′. What is more surprising, really, is that Paul Simon ended up in Johannesburg, boycotting a cultural boycott to make an album with local South African musicians that would go on to sell over fourteen million copies.

This huge success, though, should leave no doubt that Graceland is a pop album with wide appeal. The music, recognisably ‘African’, but still familiar to unaccustomed ears, is instantly likeable. There are songs like ‘All Around the World’ and the ridiculously energetic ‘You Can Call Me Al’, which explode from the first notes, all percussion and brass. But there are also songs like ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and ‘Homeless’, both of which include the vocal group ‘Ladysmith Black Mambazo’, or ‘Graceland’, which seem content to take things easy. These songs save Graceland from becoming a hyperactive menace, providing a relaxing shade.

Simon’s vocals, typically understated, are a nice contrast to the music floating around him. Despite the unusual context, however, his lyrics are far from ‘political’. In fact, they are often as breezy as the music; ‘Gumboots’ trips along at a quick pace, dragged by an accordion riff, while Simon mumbles something about “breakdowns” before optimistically asserting “You don’t feel you could love me/But I feel you could”. Throughout the album he is more conversational than confessional. Lines leap from non-sequitur to non-sequitur, and incomprehensibly small details are attached to flippant generalisations. In ‘I Know What I Know’ Paul leaps from recollecting baffling discussions at a cinematographer’s party, to blithely admitting “Who am I to blow against the wind?” In Graceland’ Simon turns wistfully lyrical, and sets the optimistic tone for the rest of the album when he gently hopes “I have reason to believe/we all will be received/in Graceland”. This lyrical technique of splicing together various styles into one long aside is matched by the hodgepodge of sounds that, nevertheless, come together so smoothly.

This ‘smoothness’, though, is as double-edged as the relentless optimism. There is the possibility that the gleaming surfaces of Graceland merely hide a lack of depth. If this was so, it wouldn’t necessarily matter: there are plenty of good puddle-songs and they’re always fun to splash around in. Still, there is something about Graceland that resists this flattening. It might be a momentousness lent by the historical context, but then it might just be that catchy South African music and the oddly fascinating ramblings of a small New Yorker can be an irresistible combination.

Stuart Mason