Graceland (25th Anniversary Edition)

Paul Simon

Sony Legacy, 2012

http://www.paulsimon.com

REVIEW BY: Curtis Jones

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/28/2012

Twenty six years after the original release, Sony has released a 25th anniversary version of Paul Simon’s Graceland.  But not only that, they gave true album lovers something they often desire from favorite artists: context. 

Up until the 1980s, Paul Simon had a decent career.  Certainly his work with Art Garfunkel was more memorable, but a string of ‘70s hit kept his profile up.  The ‘80s hadn’t been so nice for him, as his 1980 film One Trick Pony suggests, it was a tough era for folk singers to compete in an age of disco and then increasingly electronically infused music.  His 1983 album Hearts And Bones pretty much bombed, so things heading into the mid ‘80s were not looking up.

But somewhere in the intervening years, Paul Simon received and fell in love with cassette tape of South African music.  So much was his enchantment that he had his record company track down the musicians and he headed to South Africa to play with them.  And with that, the biggest selling album of Simon’s career (with over 14 million copies sold) was born.

The substance of the Graceland album doesn’t need to be rehashed here.  It is an excellent album by itself.  In an early mainstream example of sampling, Simon went to South Africa, defying the cultural ban that had been put in place by the UN due to apartheid, and played with black South African musicians.  He directed them to basically do the music they usually played, changing things here and there, and creating rhythm and backing tracks over a short span of a few days.  He then brought those tracks back to the US, where engineers edited and moved them around to marry them with lyrics that Simon was hastily writing to fit them. 

After sessions in Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Louisiana, and New York, nbtc__dv_250 Graceland provided a gloriously eclectic dish of world music that could be gobbled up by nearly anyone.  The entire album, with the exception of Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s a cappella “Homeless,” is intensely rhythmic.  I always knew this intrinsically, but the production is such that the rhythm and fantastic music are just there, with a frosting of dazzling Simon lyrics that paint incredible pictures and put you in the story, almost without realizing that the song is taking you there.  But when I popped my review copy of the album into my car’s CD player and headed down the road, I kept looking in the rearview mirror at each track change and watched my 18 month old son start moving his head back and forth to the music, or side to side for the fast numbers.  This is a boy who takes rhythm seriously, and nearly every song made that kid move.

The CD rerelease carries all of the original tunes with the addition of early and demo versions of “Homeless,” “Diamond on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints,” “You Can Call Me Al,” and “Crazy Love.”  Plus, the final track is a verbal explanation of how the song “Graceland” came to be.  But the real cream of this rerelease is a full length documentary of the evolution, production, and reaction to the album.

When Graceland was released I was three years old, so by the time I “discovered” Paul Simon’s solo catalog as a teenager I just listened to the album for what it was.  The DVD documentary “Under African Skies” reminds those around at the time, and educates new fan about the terrible issues surrounding the treatment of blacks in South Africa under the apartheid regime, and the discomfort that Simon created for some by traveling to South Africa to record with black musicians.  The documentary uses archival footage to show how the South African tracks were recorded, how Simon created the songs after returning to the US, and how the album was criticized for breaking the “cultural boycott” imposed on South Africa at the time in response to apartheid.  The documentary is really a vindication of Simon’s decision to go to South Africa, and the modern-day interviews of those who had opposed Simon’s trip in the ‘80s still show the futility of the position they took against the project.  Essentially, the documentary makes the case that Simon’s use of black South African musicians for Graceland did more than any UN resolution could, because it introduced the beauty of their culture to the world.  Those who opposed his decision were not punishing the white regime, but actually the black musicians who wanted to work and were given an audience far wider than they could ever have imagined.  They would in effect be punished twice; once for having to live under apartheid, and then for not being allowed to play with Simon in the name of a boycott.  It is clear on which side the documentary comes down.

The 25th anniversary package is worthwhile.  The album is superb, but the documentary is eye opening.  And it’s not just your throwaway bonus DVD disc that gets packaged for box sets.  It is a legitimate full-length movie that does its homework.  If Graceland could get better, this is the way to do it.

Rating: A

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