There and Back Again #1: Paul Simon's Graceland

This is a new segment on the blog!  Every Wednesday (or so) I will go back and revisit an album that is considered to be a “great album” or a “classic album.”  It will also be an album I’ve never heard.  I’m doing this for a few reasons.  First of all, I want this blog to be an unpretentious place where anyone can come to get great music suggestions.  There is A LOT of great music that isn’t new.  I know that people who love music but didn’t spend their teenage and college years obsessing over rock n roll histories and top 100 lists often feel intimidated by the vast amount of musical history out there.  This will be a good way, one album at a time, to both discover new music and learn a little bit about rock’s musical past.

Secondly, this should be amusing to people who do know these albums.  There are a lot of albums I haven’t heard, and the fact that I haven’t listened to them is very, very embarrassing.  People can laugh at me and feel ever-so-slightly superior.  That’s always fun, and I don’t mind.  It really is an atrocity I’ve never listened to Pet Sounds all the way through.  There, I said it.  In my defense, my parents didn’t really listen to music in front of me except for 106.7 Lite FM in the case of my mother, and the White album on repeat in the case of my father.  I’m not blaming them; I love “This Kiss” and “Bungalow Bill,” but it wasn’t the most well-rounded of musical diets.  I also spent A LOT of time during my formative years getting into 70s punk instead of learning about classic rock.  I can name all the members of The Runaways and all their various side projects and albums, but I couldn’t tell you what the first track on Quadrophenia is.  I’m going to try and fix that.

Mostly, it never hurts to think about old great albums once in awhile.  You can’t truly listen to music now without having an understanding of where we came from.  For these posts, I won’t write reviews.  These are all classic albums and have been written about a million times.  Instead, I’ll just try to give a few impressions of them and explain why they’re important.  Hope everyone enjoys revisiting these old albums with me again or for the first time!

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graceland

For the first edition of There and Back Again, I’ve chosen Paul Simon’s Graceland.  I figured if I’m going to attack Vampire Weekend, I should probably understand where they’re coming from.  In the New York Times Arts & Leisure week interview I saw, Koening said of course he had listened to Graceland growing up, because everyone’s parents played it in the car.  Well, mine didn’t.  He also said that he doesn’t think Vampire Weekend sounds too much like Graceland.  Well, they do.

I’m very, very glad I’ve heard this album now.  It’s beautiful to listen to and completely inventive in its simplicity.  It still sounds incredibly relevant despite its obviously 80s synth sounds in some songs.  It introduced listeners to other influential acts like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and featured 80s favorites like Linda Ronstadt.  The album was recorded in South Africa in 1986 (the year I was born!), and was controversial at the time.  While some felt that Simon was breaking the South African boycott, others felt that he was supporting black South African culture by collaborating with black artists.

What strikes me most about revisiting the album is the way critics talked about it then, versus the way critics speak about the burgeoning multiculturalism in music now.  These days, indie reviewers eat up any acts with international influences.  It gives them something to talk about and seems to make them feel better about following what is sometime seen as an overwhelmingly white art form.  Reviewers of Graceland got specific about the South African influences in ways that not too many people have about Vampire Weekend.  Rather than talk about “African” influences, reviewers tended to focus on the fact that Simon was specifically interested mbaqanga.  Rolling Stone wrote, “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.”

I think that quote from Rolling Stone is incredibly revealing.  One of the reasons Graceland is so good is that it’s culturally specific to a place and time.  It’s so rooted in the birth of the emerging struggle against AIDS and the fight against apartheid, it makes me wonder why so few indie artists have turned to the crisis in Darfur as politcal inspiration for their music.  Graceland is “not a westernized hybrid,” like so much is today.  I’d like to see more artists take note and explore the difference between hybridization and actual cultural understanding in their music.  I think the musical community is jonesing for another Graceland, but doesn’t have the cultural vocabulary or particular cause to articulate that at this time.  What do you think?  Did I get this wrong?

Below is a track of Grizzly Bear covering the most famous single from the album, “Graceland.”  Thanks to IGIF for the MP3.

MP3: “Graceland” – Grizzly Bear Cover

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4 Responses to There and Back Again #1: Paul Simon's Graceland

  1. Charlie says:

    Well the music press was so quick to dub Vampire Weekend “Graceland II,” so it seems that the world is itching for a “Graceland”-style album. It won’t come from Vampire Weekend, though. They should stick to singing about shoes and polo shirts and stuff.

    If we’re waiting for a political album taking inspiration from a particular place and time, I think the best bet is going to be a Clash-style punk act. I have no idea who that’s going to be, though.

  2. New York Rock Market says:

    i know, right? that’s exactly what i was trying to convey. it sounds a lot LIKE graceland, but it definitely isn’t. but everyone wants it to be so badly. i completely agree.

    comparing the rock criticism from 1986 to today’s really highlighted for me exactly what irks me about vampire weekend in a way that i hadn’t been able to articulate before.

    and yeah, i really can’t think of anyone on the scene today who’s going to fill that role. only time will tell, i suppose.

  3. Mr. Charles Decker says:

    Titus Andronicus? At the Swat show they said they’re writing a concept album about the American Civil War. That’s relevant, right?

  4. guest says:

    graceland is certainly a more mature album than anything vampire weekend has put out, but i think vw is incredibly successful in putting out light, airy, fun tunes that explore class conflict in the united states. sure they grab their beats from africa like simon did twenty years ago, but let’s not discount what they’re trying to do with their music. a fairer criticism/comparison of this sort would be owl city ripping off the postal service.