I put out a question a couple of weeks ago to my Facebook friends, asking them to name what they considered to be the perfect album. I was expecting a myriad of responses, and I wasn't disappointed. Folks chimed in with albums from just abut every genre out there, and I threw in a few of my own to keep the conversation going. All in all, it made for some fun reading. One of the best things about the exchange of ideas, at least for me, was that several of the albums mentioned by my friends I'd honestly forgotten about. You're probably thinking that if I'd forgotten the album, then it couldn't have been all that great to start with. Well, considering that I listen to between five and 10 albums a week as a music critic, it's easy to forget even some epic albums.
One such gem that was lost to me, at least at the time I initiated the Facebook conversation, was "Graceland," the spectacularly good 1986 comeback album by Paul Simon. I say "comeback," because his previous release—1983's "Hearts and Bones"—was a commercial disappointment at the time it was released, despite being filled with Simon's usual musical genius and featuring "Rene and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War," one of my favorite solo Simon songs. He had already released a string of successful solo albums after parting ways with his longtime musical partner, Art Garfunkel, and didn't let the failure of "Hearts and Bones" deter him. Instead, he became inspired by a cassette tape that featured The Boyoyo Boys' instrumental "Gumboots" and wrote some lyrics to sing over the tune. Simon envisioned a collaboration with the African artists he'd heard on the cassette, and before long he found himself in South Africa, recording a new album with primarily African influences.
I remember my father, a longtime Simon and Garfunkel fan, bringing home the LP of Graceland right after it came out, and playing it over and over. I remember being blown away by the variety of sounds on the album. I was already a Simon fan just by being immersed through my father's interest, but Graceland stuck with me. It truly is a perfect album, and one that by all accounts shouldn't really have ever happened, given the way the world was back in the mid 1980s. Apartheid was in full swing in South Africa, and Simon basically ignored the boycott of performing in the country by many popular artists of the time. In the end though, what Simon created was something that brought blacks and whites all over the world closer together. I'm not suggesting that "Graceland" was some magical body of work that pacified the differences between the races, but it did once again find Paul Simon ahead of the curve. He basically released a world music album way before it was hip for an established white American artist to do so. I've seen Simon live twice; once on the Rhythm of the Saints Tour in Stuttgart, Germany in 1991 and again last summer in Atlanta as he toured in support of his latest release, 2011's "So Beautiful or So What." During both tours, he incorporated a big chunk of "Graceland" into the show, and toured with some of the artists with whom he recorded on the album.
By complete coincidence, as I was listening to my well-worn CD of "Graceland" while reminiscing about that album's effect on my musical makeup, a package arrived in the mail this week from Legacy recordings. In honor of the 25th anniversary of the success of "Graceland," the fine folks at Legacy have released a special package that expands on the original album. I've been reviewing music for about 15 years, and this is easily one of the nicest and most lavish box sets dedicated to a single album I've seen. The whole thing comes housed in a linen-covered slipcase with the Graceland album art embossed on the outside. A 76-page book tells the story of the album and lists all the song lyrics, along with a treasure trove of photographs. A folded poster of the album art is also included. A cardboard foldout contains four discs; the original album completely remastered, a second CD of outtakes and demos, a DVD of the 1987 live performance "Graceland: The African Concert," and most importantly a DVD of the documentary Under African Skies. The documentary is an amazing piece of filmmaking, documenting the creation of the album back in the 80s, while also showing Simon reuniting with many of the musicians with whom he recorded back then. The documentary alone is worth the price of the entire box set. Finally, there is a second book shaped like a yellow legal pad that is full of facsimiles of Simon's handwritten ideas and lyrics for all of the songs on "Graceland." It's pretty amazing to see how each song evolved from rudimentary lyric ideas to the finished product. To be honest, had the record company not sent this to me, I definitely would have gone out and bought it. If you're a fan of Simon's music, and more importantly a fan of "Graceland," then this is definitely worth the money. I'll be revisiting other albums that I consider to be perfect listening experiences from time to time, but I doubt any of them will ever get the gorgeous treatment that "Graceland" just received.