Graceland wasn’t Paul Simon’s first brush with pan-cultural music, nor was it even his first commercial success with such. But unlike the Jamaican, Peruvian and Latin influences of earlier hits, the South African bedrock of Graceland was as much a political statement as it was a musical adventure. At the time of the album’s mid-80s recording, a cultural boycott of South Africa was winding down but still very much in effect, and Simon’s recording in South Africa split those in the anti-apartheid movement, garnering support, controversy and protests. The album’s commercial success (it peaked at #3 in the U.S., topped the chart in seven countries, charted three singles, sold five million copies and won two Grammys), heavy touring and a filmed release of a concert in Zimbabwe, provided worldwide exposure and long-lasting career impact for Simon’s collaborators, but didn’t immediately sway opinion of those who felt the boycott should take precedence.
The album’s been reissued before, including a 2004 CD that added three bonus tracks, but this twenty-fifth anniversary box set is a deservedly plush reissue of a landmark. In addition to the original eleven track album, the set includes a second CD of six bonus tracks, a DVD of the 1987 concert film The African Concert, a DVD of the documentary Under African Skies, a 76-page oversized (8-1/2 x 11-1/2) book of essays, interviews, photographs and notes, a poster reproduction of the album cover and a thick yellow notepad that reproduces Simon’s handwritten lyrics and notes. All of this is housed in a box made from heavy stock with a canvas-like finish. The bonus tracks collect the three from the earlier CD reissue and add three more, including a pair of instrumental demos (“You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love”) and Simon’s newly recorded nine-minute musical narrative “The Story of ‘Graceland’.”
The documentary Under African Skies provides terrific context, reminding listeners that the album was a product of Simon’s political and artistic daring (or, some might argue, his naivete), and a gambit that salvaged his commercial career from the disappointment of Hearts and Bones. By following Simon on a return visit to South Africa, one sees how the album represented a great deal more than a simple musical collaboration. The passions stirred by the album’s recording circumstances dealt out more than a few scars, and though they’ve healed, they haven’t disappeared. The film is augmented with extended interviews, and the DVD is filled out with period music videos for “You Can Call Me Al,” “The Boy in the Bubble,” and “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” There’s also a live video of the latter song performed on Saturday Night Live in 1986.
The second DVD includes the 90-minute African Concert, filmed in 1987 in Harare, Zimbabwe and featuring Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Despite the joy evident in the performances, as well as in the audience reception, South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid, future president Nelson Mandela was still in jail, and Robert Mugabe had yet to reveal his later ways. The controversy surrounding the album is as much a part of its historical legacy as the music itself. The box set’s live and documentary material, insightful commentary and memorable peek into Simon’s work process add color and depth to an already rich work of art. For the millions who already own the album, the extras are worth considering, as the light shed by the annotation and detail turns the star into a supernova. [©2012 hyperbolium dot com]