From the opening accordion notes of “The Boy in the Bubble,” the opening song to the 25th anniversary edition re-release of Paul Simon’s Graceland LP, the listener forgets they are hearing music recorded in the mid-1980s. While the evolution of a thriving adult contemporary radio format means that it is now routine for performers to blend traditional African rhythms with gospel, a-cappella, zydeco, Tex Mex, and other varied musical sounds, at the time it was not quite such an established musical M.O.
Simon was not the first mainstream pop star to experiment with what can loosely be called “world music,” other luminaries including Paul McCartney and David Byrne explored similar territory before him, but Simon embraced it as a wholehearted concept that came to define his solo career as well as the careers of many performers who followed in his tracks.
Many of these songs, including the aforementioned “Boy in the Bubble” as well as the title track, “You Can Call Me Al” (immortalized in a 1980s music video featuring comedian Chevy Chase) and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” are still staples on many radio stations aimed at an older audience, also a testament to their timelessness. However, thanks to the crisp re-mastering, small details jump out at the listener. For example, I must admit that until hearing the re-mastered vocals on “Boy in the Bubble,” I didn’t realize the song prominently features a “bomb in a baby carriage” shattering shop windows. Part of the timelessness of Graceland is due to the timelessness of the underlying rhythms, which are unusual and yet familiar to Western ears since they are the basis of the African music that later became jazz, blues and eventually rock n roll. The seamless blending of harmonies from ‘50s pop legends The Everly Brothers on the title cut further demonstrates just how universally accessible Soweto township jive really is.
Sadly, the social ills Simon addresses on Graceland are also alive and well 25 years later. Apartheid is thankfully a relic of the past, but racial discrimination is a constant problem, as are homelessness, hunger, income inequality, and violence. Yet with the exception of a couple of slow, sad numbers like “Homeless,” Simon keeps things at a jaunty pace, allowing the listener to still enjoy what they’re hearing.
The 25th anniversary CD also features a number of alternate takes and demos, as well as an audio interview with Simon, that give further insight to the creative process behind Graceland, but the real accomplishment of the re-release is to remind everyone why they still care about this album all these years later. And if you don’t care, I challenge you to listen to it and still feel that way.