The year was 1984, and Paul Simon’s fifteen minutes of fame were seemingly over: His artistic relationship with Art Garfunkel had fallen apart once again, his marriage to Carrie Fisher unspectacularly ended after less than a year, and his latest album had become his lowest-charting ever. Though Simon continued to get attention on the “nostalgia circuit,” nobody was looking for anything new from the folk singer, whose glory days were now almost two decades behind him.
Fortunately, Simon would later reflect that not having anything expected of you allows you to take risks — which meant nobody batted an eye when, inspired by a bootleg tape of South African mbaqanga street music, he flew to Johannesburg to spend two weeks in jam sessions with local musicians, then flew them to New York three months later to refine that initial work. The result, released in 1986, was “Graceland,” Simon’s best-known album without Garfunkel, and a work of art that remains dogged by the bigger-picture concepts surrounding its creation.
In this present moment, with genre and stylistic fusion being more common than ever in popular music, it can be a little hard to appreciate the novelty “Graceland”’s contemporary audience saw in its focused exploration of a foreign soundscape. Nonetheless, the combination of the instrumentation and rhythms of the South African musicians (including co-arranger/guitarist Ray Phiri and choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo) with Simon’s lyrics and additional arrangements creates a totally distinct sound that, even now, seems both radically new and somewhat familiar. New York brass bands intersect with Johannesburg’s rural-tinged jazz bass and pennywhistles on “You Can Call Me Al,” Simon contrasts a South African folk song about how “the women take care of themselves” with a story of back-and-forth flirting at a high-society party on “I Know What I Know,” and Ladysmith Black Mambazo evokes the longing of an American spiritual through the traditional a cappella arrangements of “Homeless,” illustrating just how deep the “roots of rhythm” Simon sings about elsewhere on the album truly reach.
“Graceland” further sets itself apart by its deft pattern of alternating between jubilant and sorrowful tones in both music and lyrics, often within the same song. This is exemplified nowhere better than in the opening track, “The Boy in the Bubble.” As the central accordion riff jumps from a frenetic minor to a celebratory major key, Simon’s opening narrative about a terrorist bombing gives way to a declaration that “[t]hese are the days of miracle and wonder,” encouraging the audience to keep their chin up in spite of all the trouble in the world. Throughout the following narratives about rich girls and poor boys falling in love, archangels filing for divorce, and people newly placed in strange worlds, “Graceland” further stresses the importance of maintaining hope in the face of adversity.
However, Simon’s message, genuine as it was, still risked being undermined by the intensity of the adversity waiting right outside the studio door. The decision to record and source talent from South Africa — in defiance of the United Nations-instituted cultural boycott on the country in response to apartheid — haunted “Graceland” and Simon for years after the fact: Activists accused him of weakening the intended international solidarity against racism by offering his patronage and not calling for action within his lyrics, thus tacitly supporting the nation’s regime. It was not enough to just have hope, Simon’s opponents argued; if he would not actively be part of the solution, he was part of the problem.
Even today, with apartheid relegated to a historical subject, “Graceland” remains partly overshadowed by the notion of cultural subjugation, albeit now through appropriation. Although he worked in direct respectful cooperation with the Black South African musicians during production, paying them handsomely and giving them writing credits where he felt they were due (with Phiri later insisting that “we used Paul as much as Paul used us”), Simon still effectively co-opted their musical traditions into his usual songwriting style, with occasionally questionable and offensive results emerging from the cultural clash. (“Under African Skies,” a duet between Simon and guest Linda Ronstadt, is perhaps the most obvious example, opening with a verse that romanticizes the African homeland — as sung by two white Americans.)
Despite the baggage its circumstances of production carry, “Graceland” still remains an artful showcase of the music and culture of an often overlooked corner of the world, bearing a resonant message. With this generation facing ever greater challenges that threaten everyone, Simon and company’s insistence on the need to keep hope alive is needed more than ever, even if Simon’s guiding choice to put art before politics puts its present legacy in question. Maybe the notion of art for art’s sake can eventually reconcile with the idea of music as a force for change, and “Graceland” can find its place in today’s world — but for now, as Simon says, “we’ll just have to wait and confer.”
Time-Warped Records is a new column dedicated to retrospective reviews of music albums at least 10 years old, submitted by reader request. To suggest an album for review, please email Alden Parker ‘26 at [email protected].