Paul Simon – [Box Set]

Saturday, 16 June 2012

By 1986 – sixteen years after he had dissolved his artistic partnership with Art Garfunkel – it looked like the bloom had completely come off the concept of Paul Simon as a solo artist for the record-buying public. The singer's record sales had begun to decline around 1975's Still Crazy After All These Years in spite of it topping the charts and the singer started looking for something new to help rejuvenate his career. He had tried the “reunion tour” angle and made amends with Art Garfunkel (they ended up on a year-long world tour together), and the duo had even begun writing for a new studio album which was tentatively entitled Think Too Much. At some point during the recording sessions though, Simon & Garfunkel stalled again and abandoned both the work they'd already done as well as the partnership citing irreconcilable creative differences. Some of Simon's songs from those sessions did end up seeing the light of day as part of his sixth album, Hearts and Bones, but the public expressed its frustration with the entire Simon & Garfunkel mess by awarding the singer with the lowest sales figures and chart position he'd ever experienced; Hearts and Bones only broke into the top ten in Norway, and only ascended to numbers 35 and 50 in the United States and Canada respectively. This was not a glowing return, so no one was expecting much when the singer went back to the drawing board to begin work on the album which would become Graceland; the album which would end up totally redefining his career and abilities as an artist, as well as inspiring all-new interest in his work. Graceland became a global sensation when it was being made due to the circumstances surrounding its recording (more on that later), but that excitement continued through the release when people discovered how good it was; it would ultimately sell sixteen million copies worldwide as Paul Simon's blend of world music and meticulously accessible folk and pop songwriting sensibilities struck a chord in fans and renewed their appreciation for his music.

The excitement and sense of discovery embodied by Graceland plays undiminished even now as “The Boy In The Bubble” pushes the record open with an unusual-sounding fretless bass, accordion, poly-rhythmic drums and more unusual sounds which (to that point) had never appeared in Paul Simon's repertoire before placed proudly at the front line of the song. The resulting pastiche style will still cause eyes to widen in disbelief as the exotic, upbeat and infectious nature of the song sits in perfect contrast and opposition of lyric sheets which seem uncharacteristically (for Simon) nihilistic (check out “It was a slow day and he sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road/ There was a bright light and a shattering of shop windows/ The bomb in the baby carriage was wired through the radio”) even years later. Words like that coupled with a perfectly wry delivery (almost in the class of Lou Reed) make for a set of images which really force those listening to get in close so they don't miss a single syllable and, at around the time “You Can Call Me Al” warms up (what an odd thing to say for a song written about the discovery of heightened global awareness thanks to national bigotry), listeners will discover that they're hooked and soaking up every microtone and musical snapshot taken as Simon discovers new sounds around the world and how his own music can inter-relate with it. The results are truly enlightening and, after that realization dawns on listeners, they'll delve even deeper into “Homeless,” “That Was Your Mother” and “All Around The World,” and then hurriedly restart the record to see what they missed.

That sense of fascination and enlightenment endures on Graceland even now in the twenty-first century – but fans of this music will be delighted at the reward they receive in the two-CD, two-DVD deluxe box set presentation of the album. In addition to a live film captured at Rufaro Stadiumin Zimbabwe circa 1987 (which is sort of like watching the musical equivalent to the Thrilla In Manilla from a historic standpoint), the second CD and second DVD seek to offer information and context for the music, style, ideas and inspiration which ultimately yielded Graceland.

On the second CD, listeners will be offered an idea of how the songs on Graceland developed as a few demos and early versions of the songs are collected to illustrate their starting points. The songs on CD2 are the bare bones basic beginnings of the compositions and give up some rather revealing and potentially controversial starting points for songs like “You Can Call Me Al,” “Homeless,” “Myth Of Fingerprints” and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” in their illustration by negative example of just how integral to the finished album the African players on the album were. The perfectly mundane run-through of an instrumental version of “My Name Is Al” included is a good example of just how close Graceland could have been to Hearts and Bones, and “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” is frustratingly forgettable. Each time another song starts, fans will find themselves thankful that they also have the finished work at hand as a reminder of how good the songs can be.

The second excellent reminder appears on the “other” DVD included in this box set. There, in addition to some great rehearsal footage shot when Paul Simon returned to South Africa and re-assembled his band of players for a concert, fans are given the understanding of what exactly Graceland (the recording) and the making of it meant to the auteur and what it meant from a historical standpoint; Graceland was recorded in South Africa at the height of appartheid – as a result, everything about the record from the trip to South Africa to make it to the recording to the album's release was dogged with resistance which wasn't really overcome until Graceland was embraced by the public and began to sell in record numbers. That makes for an interesting and illuminating watch on its own but, not only that, viewers get the sense that, more than any number of Bob Dylan's records of those by The Dead Kennedys or Neil Young, Graceland really did mark a time and place and a change which was happening in the world; it was an important time and Graceland is both a beautiful part of it as well as a reminder of it.



The 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition Box Set reissue of Graceland is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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