Greatest Songs, #485: “Graceland” by Paul Simon

Album: Graceland (Warner Bros. Records)
Year: 1986
Written by: Paul Simon
Billboard Hot 100: #81

 From Rolling Stone:

Simon recorded “Graceland” with South African mbaqanga musicians; he also got backup harmonies from his heroes, the Everly Brothers. But he didn’t think of “Graceland” as the album’s title song until late in the process. “I thought it was distracting,” he said. “I figured people would think I’m writing about Elvis Presley, and this is a South African record.”

From the Wikipedia entry on the album:

Coming at a time when Simon’s musical career was at something of a low ebb following the disappointing public response to Hearts and Bones, the project was originally inspired by Simon’s listening to a cassette of the Boyoyo Boys instrumental “Gumboots”, lent to him by Heidi Berg, a singer-songwriter with whom Simon was working (and who would later become an award-winning jingle singer and writer). Simon later wrote lyrics to sing over a re-recording of the song, which became the fourth track on the album.

Graceland features an eclectic mixture of musical styles including popa cappellaisicathamiyarock, and mbaqanga. Much of the album was recorded in South Africa, and it features many South African musicians and groups. Simon faced accusations that he had broken the cultural boycott imposed by the rest of the world against the apartheid regime in South Africa, which was in its final years at the time. This view was not supported by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee, as the album showcased the talents of the black South African musicians while offering no support to the South African government.

From allmusic, reviewing the album:

With Graceland, Paul Simon hit on the idea of combining his always perceptive songwriting with the little-heard mbaqanga music of South Africa, creating a fascinating hybrid that re-enchanted his old audience and earned him a new one. It is true that the South African angle (including its controversial aspect during the apartheid days) was a powerful marketing tool and that the catchy music succeeded in presenting listeners with that magical combination: something they’d never heard before that nevertheless sounded familiar. As eclectic as any record Simon had made, it also delved into zydeco and conjunto-flavored rock & roll while marking a surprising new lyrical approach (presaged on some songs on Hearts and Bones)… An enormously successful record, Graceland became the standard against which subsequent musical experiments by major artists were measured.

From a 1997 review of the album in Rolling Stone:

In his typically understated way, Paul Simon has been an ardent musical explorer since he went solo in 1972. His songs have incorporated almost every style of American music, including doo-wop, gospel, blues and jazz, as well as reggae, minimalism, salsa and South American folk. But because he’s never based an entire album on any one of these, Simon is probably best known for pop hits like “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” On Graceland, his first album in three years, Simon completes his decade-long drift away from the pop mainstream with a topical dive into South African music, politics and controversy.

Although Simon’s lyrics avoid the accusatory stance of Sun City or UB40‘s new album, his engagement with black musicians who are ruled by apartheid is inherently political. In the liner notes, Simon explains that he was initially attracted to mbaqanga because of its similarity to Fifties R&B, and that music’s exuberance suffuses the album.

…in the brilliant “Graceland” (a peak in Simon’s career), Elvis Presley’s gaudy, impenetrable home stands as a glorious symbol of redemption. The narrator, who’s running from a broken relationship, announces he has “reason to believe” he’ll be welcomed in Graceland. The knowledge that Presley died bloated, addicted and isolated doesn’t deter the song’s giddy faith in his legend.