November 13, 2012 by NowhereButPop
For the sake of imagery, just imagine a 45 year old Paul Simon driving through the Deep South, with his nine year old son in tow, moping over his breakup with Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia). I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the perfect concept for a sitcom. Instead, this turned out to be the gestation of his greatest solo album Graceland, released in 1986 to commercial and critical acclaim, and reigniting his career.
Simply put, Graceland is the album where Simon realizes that he’s an old man and begins to acknowledge it. It is without question his old man album. An old man album is one that is the embodiment of an artist getting acknowledging or getting through their midlife crisis. He’s realized that the world, the music scene, hell his own life isn’t what it once was. And so instead of trying to recreate it, or appeal to the trends of the time, Paul Simon did what was good for Paul Simon. With Graceland, Simon has rightfully concluded that he can’t change the past, and can only focus on the present and go from there as the man he now is, and not the man he once was. In short, it’s his growing up album.
Musically, Graceland is very interesting because it is a far cry from both the folk sound he had when he was with Art Garfunkel, and the pseudo-pop sounds of his early-80s albums. With this album, there is a great emphasis on world music, particularly via South African influences such as chants and rhythms. Imagine if Peter Gabriel produced a Simon and Garfunkel album with a few collaborations with Bob Dylan, that’s Graceland. Not only was Graceland what the fans wanted, it was also what Paul Simon needed.
The beginnings of the album go back to his failed marriage to Carrie Fisher, whom he was married to for a year, despite the fact that they had been a couple for eight years before they were married. Ironically enough, they resumed their relationship even after they were divorced. That brings us to the beginning of the article with Simon and son on their way to Graceland, birthplace of Elvis Presley. After the divorce, Simon decided to take a sabbatical to Tennessee where he could soak in the footsteps of his idol and clear his head from the divorce. Somehow his travelling led to South Africa where he would infuse traditional cultural music into American folk and pop.
The first track on the album “The Boy in the Bubble” describes a trip to South Africa Simon took. It sounds like he’s talking about the juxtaposition of life in America contrasted against life in a third world nation, such as South Africa. It’s different there, but not entirely. In South Africa no one knows who he is, and in America no one seems to care who he is anymore, hence the line “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”. His generation has already done that for him, and now it’s time for a new generation to hoist their hero atop of the charts. Simon can’t expect to just be there, he now has to earn it. Him earning his place at the top of the charts again started with his trip to Graceland, which is the title to the second track on the album.
“Graceland” simultaneously recounts his trip to Graceland with his son, as well as the breakup with Fisher. Trying to find solace from the hurt, Paul Simon takes his son on a trip to try and get away from it all. However, he can’t help but remember when and how Fisher left him and what she told him “losing love is like a window in your heart”. Simplistically romantic and realistically melancholy at the same time is when he sings “She comes back to tell me she’s gone, as if I didn’t know that…as if I’d never notice the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”. Obviously he’s noticed the minor things just as much as the major ones, but it’s the minor things such as Carrie Fisher brushing her hair back that he’ll remember.
Maybe it’s for my own amusement, but I’m imagining Paul Simon actually talking out this song to his son in the car, while his son has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. This brings me to “That Was Your Mother”. Although it is the penultimate song on the album, this song is actually about Paul Simon telling his son about how he met his mother. This is the proto-typical “remembrance song”, a crucial aspect of the old man album. This is him recollecting his youth to his son, which is the ultimate expression of the passing of time. The fact that he uses the word “dude” in this song proves that Graceland is an old man album. The point is to show the difference between generations. To make his story more understandable or relatable he has to use modern colloquialism. It’s supposed to sound awkward for Paul Simon to refer to as anyone as “dude”. “Before you were born dude, when life was great, you are the burden of my generation, I sure do love you, but let’s get that straight”. Having a child (that he loves) has forced him to grow up, and mature as a man. He no longer can “Get a little conversation, drink a little red win…dance the night away”, instead he’s driving his son to Graceland.
The third and fourth tracks “I Know What I Know” and “Gumboots” respectively, represent the infusion of African beats to a tee. The former showcases African chants in the background of the chorus, while the latter is a reimagining of the song (also called Gumboots) which reignited his creativity. “I Know What I Know” seems to be the sound of Paul Simon reaffirming himself in the wake of his recent commercial failures. The lines “I know what I know, I’ll sing what I said” and “Who am I to blow against the wind” imply a certain idea of not being other than who you are. He means that he will do what Paul Simon wants to do, as he is not going to go against who he is for whatever reason. It’s essentially himself justifying the album to anyone who questions it.
The biggest single from the album, and possible Simon’s solo career, “You Can Call Me Al” describes his trip to Africa, and the solace he found there. The first verse describes the recent commercial failures, as Simon does not want to live out the rest of his life as a spent force. The second verse is my favorite verse on the entire album, and the third verse is a direct recollection of what he saw in South Africa. It’s the centerpiece of the album; it’s the summation of all the forces that influenced the album’s synthesis.
The last song worth mentioning is also the one that most blatantly references his divorce to Carrie Fisher. “Crazy Love, Vol. II”, as it implies is the divorce from his side of things. Fisher who has had emotional and drug problems is the embodiment of that crazy love. Yeah he loves her, but being as crazy as she is leads Simon to proclaim “I don’t want no part of your crazy love”. At the same time he does lament the split up since he says that “this time the joke is on me”. It’s the sad realization that it’s time to say goodbye to someone you love, not because you want to, but because you have to.
The way that Paul Simon navigates so many moving parts, the upbeat nature of the music borne from American folk/pop heavily mixed with African beats, bass lines, chants, and hymns is nothing short of spectacular. Contrast that with the depressingly reminiscent yet optimistic nature of the lyrics and the listener is left to feel both forlorn and hopeful at the same time. Anytime that an album is able to make the listener feel the exact same way as the artist did when they recorded it has more than succeeded in its task. It is for this reason that Graceland will continue to be as timeless and well-regarded as it has been over the past 25 years.