Paul Simon released Graceland in 1986 to a mixture of critical acclaim, commercial popularity, and controversy. It’s not hard to understand the first two. The 11 cuts are buoyed by tuneful hooks, thoughtful lyrics, and the distinct contributions of numerous South African musicians with whom Simon collaborated. Twenty-five years after its release, it’s the controversy that might be lost on anyone too young to remember the apartheid regime in South Africa. Back in those days, a strict worldwide cultural boycott was in effect, in protest of the South African government. Among the various leaders of the anti-apartheid movement there was great disagreement over Simon’s naïve breaking of that boycott.
What matters most in retrospect is the unique music they created, an enduring combination of Western pop and idiosyncratic South African styles. As explained in the extensive liner notes, Simon went to work with these musicians without having composed any actual songs. The music, therefore, developed out of jams and existing compositions that had already caught Simon’s ear before he ventured there. Without a game plan in effect, Simon then returned to the States and wrote the words around the co-written music. There’s much more to the story, but that’s what so outstanding about this special reissue. Between the liner notes, a nine minute audio track of Simon remembering the sessions, and the DVD Under African Skies, the complete story is told in astounding detail.
Graceland swept the world, becoming a multi-platinum phenomenon that struck a chord with seemingly all who heard it. “You Can Call Me Al,” the infectiously catchy hit, was all over MTV thanks to a hilarious clip featuring Chevy Chase (included on the DVD). The title tune, benefitting from a vocal assist by The Everly Brothers, tells the story of a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home, but Simon’s lyrics have grander philosophical ambitions. The South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings an ethereal beauty to the a capella “Homeless.” They also grace the better known “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (a knockout performance of the song from Saturday Night Live is on the DVD). From start to finish, the album is a work of thoughtful, multi-layered brilliance that helped spark an explosion in the popularity of world music.