paul simon

#23: Vampire Weekend – “Vampire Weekend” (2008)

Four tracks into my first listen of Vampire Weekend, I threw my pen at the wall. It sounded familiar.

I checked the Mighty Spreadsheet of Albums. Did I do this deliberately, and forget about it? Apparently so – apparently after a fortnight ago I have Paul Simon on the brain.

This week, I am thinking about tracking other people’s thought processes along. Because without wanting to go all first-you-must-create-the-universe on you, nobody makes anything creative out of nothing at all. There is no such thing as a work without influences, only work where those influences are harder to spot. And sometimes, as in this week and a fortnight ago, two groups start from a similar point and walk a similar path of fusing the familiar and the foreign, but twenty years apart from each other. They’re related closely enough that tone-deaf sods like me can hear it, and everyone else can point it out, but those twenty years make a difference. Twenty years on and you get this (with warning for language and also for the directorial thumbprint of Richard Ayoade):

This week, I am thinking about trying to do something that has been done before, in a different cultural climate, with better access to electronics, and not nearly as nice a voice (sorry Ezra Koenig – it’s just a bit grating, and not really for me). And on one level, it seems like a foolish thing to do, because the original exists and this world contains quite enough crap remakes for the time being.

On another level, I think there’s certainly space to take ideas that have been done once before, and to bring them on another outing in a different context – that’s how you find new facets of meaning. So on balance I don’t really begrudge Vampire Weekend their auditory palette, their east coast small town stories, the fact that they seem to have a knack for giving their drummer something interesting to do. In fact, those things are all recommendations.

What I do begrudge them, however, is that terribly indie thing where you take nonsensical or cryptic lyrics and put them to jaunty background music. Why do they do it? What is it for? Is this another thing I have to thank the Gallagher brothers for popularising? Will somebody please explain this to me?

And then, you know, with Graceland at least Paul Simon seemed to recognise that he was doing something overtly political. All I can find about Vampire Weekend is a hundred and one band profiles where they insist they’re not WASPy or colonial – which, fine, but that does also distract from the fact that there is something inherently political in the kind of cultural fusion they’re doing. And all you’re going to do is remind people that technically you’re allowed to do it? Live a little, darlings. Perhaps I should have listened to Contra, their second album, which is more overt about its sources and also contains a wider range of voices and instruments. Maybe that would have been more interesting.

Vampire Weekend made me think a lot of things – or rather it fitted in with a lot of the other things I was thinking this week – but it didn’t really make me feel anything (except occasional mild confusion). I can see why you might feel things? I can see why other people would love this album? But it and I are vibrating at different frequencies. It sometimes happens. Carry on, everyone.

#21: Paul Simon – “Graceland” (1986)

Friends, you join me today in the middle of one of the worst bouts of writer’s block that I can ever recall having. It’s not that I’m lacking in opinions – no fear of that – just that, the moment I try and write them down, they evaporate like this raccoon’s candyfloss.

Normally, this ought not matter. I can go away and do other things for a bit: read a book, watch a film, just generally soak up other people’s ideas for a bit. It’ll come back. But this time, I have to tell you what I think, which means I have to think a thing, and then somehow actually hang on to it. This time, I have deadlines.

Paul Simon is not helping.

It has taken me a very long time to get around to Graceland. Emily tells me it’s a long-time favourite of hers – and entirely aside from that, by rights, I ought to really enjoy it. I love me some cross-borders world music, some heavy-duty storytelling. You know that I love genre-mashing. And yet here I am, listening to all of those things, and I don’t know what to tell you, except that I am not really feeling it. I have sat at this screen with my headphones on for a very long time.

Part of it, I’m sure, is the pressure. I may not have listened to much of Graceland before, but Paul Simon’s voice is very easy to stumble upon, and he has associations in my head with people I’ve known that I’ve really wanted to impress, and I will tell you that this much time alone with him is tough. The song I most enjoyed is “Homeless”, which is also the one where we hear the least from Paul Simon. Entirely comprised of vocals, it’s soft and beautiful and I just really like the sound of it. Ladysmith Black Manzabo, the group of singers taking centre-stage, also start off “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”, and are, I think, the best thing about that song. It’s a good song. They’re pretty great.

What this leads me to believe is that the best thing about Graceland is the South African influence, and the thing I’m least interested in is the Americana. Other songs are a combination of music that is very listenable to when I don’t pay too much attention to the words, and words that… there’s nothing wrong with them and they’re fine, it’s just that I can’t tune in to them right now. I can’t get on the right level to be interested in them. My mind is a blank slate; I have no opinion here. I have been like this for a fortnight now. It has been extremely irritating.

I mean – look at this. I ought to be lapping this up. It even starts with an accordion! This is exactly the sort of thing I usually go for. On my first listen, I was convinced I’d like it better second time around. But I didn’t, not really.

This is not really much of a review this week, so much as it is a bookmark. I promise I’ll come back to Graceland in a few months, when I can look it in the eye. It’s a good album. I can see what there is to like. But for now, I cannot for the life of me grab on to it properly.