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.
Nine of the eleven songs emanate from Simon’s interest in mbaqanga, a broad category of South African pop music; much of the recording was done with South African musicians, often in Johannesburg. (The other two songs feature the romping zydeco two-step of Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Mexican rock of Los Lobos, but these tracks play like afterthoughts.) The African contributions fuse easily with overdubs by American musicians, including the Everly Brothers and Adrian Belew. But the music is not a westernized hybrid; it’s dominated by mbaqanga, and those who aren’t interested in foreign rhythms and chants shouldn’t waste time looking for another “Sounds of Silence.”
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 most moving track, the a capella “Homeless,” Simon’s soft, ageless voice harmonizes with the vocal group Lady-smith Black Mambazo in a way that suggests a natural link with doo-wop. The unity of their voices expresses beauty, strength and endurance, despite the song’s grim subject. Simon’s goal is not to rouse further conflict over apartheid but to provide a hopeful tonic.
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Examples of blind faith recur in these familiar, often mirthful songs. In “Gumboots,” Simon simply declares, “You don’t feel you could love me/But I feel you could,” as though the strength of his belief could change the facts. And 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.
But even as a musical diplomat, Simon courts controversy.
Both he and his collaborators have technically violated the United Nations cultural boycott of South Africa, the same resolution behind the musical ban on playing Sun City. And although Simon has twice rejected offers to appear at that South African resort, Graceland features an appearance by Linda Ronstadt, who has unapologetically played there. Simon has already begun to respond to these issues. But politics should not color one’s appreciation of an album as lovely, daring and accomplished as this.