Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Paul Simon: Graceland [Warner Bros., 1986]
Opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its biculturalism is striking, engaging, unprecedented--sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so radically incongruous and plainly beautiful. For Simon, the r&b-derived mbaqanga he and his South African sidemen--guitarist Ray Phiri, fretless bassist Baghiti Kumalo, and drummer Isaac Mtshali, all players of conspicuous responsiveness and imagination--put through their Tin Pan Alley paces seems to represent a renewed sense of faith and connectedness after the finely wrought dead end of Hearts and Bones. The singing has lost none of its studied wimpiness, and he still writes like an English major, but this is the first album he's ever recorded rhythm tracks first, and it gives up a groove so buoyant you could float a loan to Zimbabwe on it. Despite the personalized cameo for Sun City scab Linda Ronstadt (a slap in the face to the ANC whether he admits it or not) and the avoidance of political lyrics elsewhere, he's found his "shot of redemption," escaping alienation without denying its continuing truth. It's the rare English major who can make such a claim. A