In the words of Paul Simon, the album Graceland is “a very good example of how a collaboration works, even when you’re not aware of it occurring.” Following its commercial debut in 1986, the album gained nationwide success as it took modern approaches to traditional African rhythms. The album itself is a poised amalgamation of classic American rock and the sounds of colonial South Africa, but Simon’s careful attention to preserving the integrity of either party is what makes the album genuinely stand out.
In the mid-1980s, Simon had found his personal life in shambles as he ended a critically acclaimed reunion with partner Art Garfunkel and his marriage to actress Carrie Fischer disintegrated. In the artist’s words, “I had a personal blow, a career setback, and the combination of the two put me into a tailspin.” However, in an effort to establish himself as a solo artist, Simon took the opportunity to travel through continental Africa and engage with the cultures and sounds that would later be so essential to his work. Recorded in Johannesburg, South Africa, Graceland stood out to critics as a sound as emotionally invested as it is original; the album has established itself as novel, inventive, and downright impassioned.
The album begins with a grim accordion solo sewn together with explosive drums on the track “The Boy in the Bubble.” Within this first track, Simon introduces a few themes that are prevalent in Graceland: the militarization of Africa, the innocence of youth, and the destruction of culture by westernized countries. “The Boy in the Bubble” is the narrative of a boy struggling to maintain optimism in the face of the destruction of his hometown. Set to a background of careful African percussion and traditional American brass, the song lends itself to a multicultural understanding of the struggles of African children with the power and relatability of American melodies.
Amongst the most popular songs on the album is Simon’s first single, “You Can Call Me Al.” The song is again a personal account; a man encounters a midlife crisis set to an upbeat tin whistle and African a cappella. The song follows the man as he struggles to understand what he has done with his life; weight gain, a notable lack of romance, and frustration with his lack of progress are all approached with the same grateful optimism. After each of the struggles of the narrator, the upbeat and charismatic chorus provides a sense of redemption.
This is where Graceland sticks out—the album was Simon’s unrestrained reflection of a decomposing personal life, set to charming and original rhythms. The music on the album has the character of a late 1950s Sun records, with the generous contributions of African percussion and voices. Paul Simon carefully crafted Graceland to be unorthodox, relevant, and powerful, and nearly 30 years after its debut, the album maintains such a status. The composition and character of the music is undisputedly masterful, and is indicative of an artist with complete understanding of cultural and musical integration.