Paul Simon’s definitive hit off of Graceland, You Can Call Me Al, has always sounded like a not-too subtle title for a somber song detailing the process of aging and maturing but losing apart of ones edgier, rawer self. Oddly, the internet did not provide me with much song analysis apart from encouraging reviews and the feeling that this song was ‘optimistic’ and ‘happy’. But I intend to write an analysis with the basic premise that the song revolves around losing ones sense of self and the hope that an unknown other can help restore that sense of identity with the end realization that only the individual, deprived of the comforts that created his situation, can restore himself.
The song begins with A man walks down the street / He says why am I soft in the middle now / Why am I soft in the middle / The rest of my life is so hard. This jump starts the tone of the song — soft diction to describe his current life (soft, middle) — juxtaposed against the emphasis of what is left in life, “hard”. It continues with I want a shot at redemption / Don’t want to end up a cartoon / In a cartoon graveyard. The feeling is whimsical, almost Charlie Brown-esque: in a comical sense, he despairs over seeing himself as a serious, self-aware human whose personality and traits will parallel his descent in age, with him finally ending in death as a ‘cartoon’ in a cartoon graveyard.
The chorus begins with ‘If you’ll be my bodyguard’ — a metaphor for a friend who will be genuine and real with the other — someone not afraid to tell the other when’s he’s losing his sense of self. This is continued with I can be your long lost pal … You can call me Al. The theme of desperation is apparent — anyone can be his friend as long as he or she is sincerely his friend. But is he too old to address his own decline in a genuine fashion? This is furthered, where a striking example seems to be that the title, ‘You Can Call Me Al’, is oddly similar to the phrase ‘you can call me out’, where the individual doesn’t recognize a strength within himself to change his ways, but hopes another could. Though it may be a stretch, I have always thought that was the intention of the title — to provide a slightly subtle, but with attention, apparent meaning to this song.
The next verse begins with A man walks down the street / He says why am I short of attention / Got a short little span of attention / And woe my nights are so long / Where’s my wife and family / What if I die here. From this, the character is seemingly still stuck in the fourth stage of grief. He implies that if he dies here, he will not be proud of what he has left behind, and even if he doesn’t he does not feel proud of how he is currently.
The final verse sees the protagonist accepting and taking proactive steps to overcome his stagnation as a human, though he finds it isolating and trying. A man walks down the street / It’s a street in a strange world / Maybe it’s the third world / Maybe it’s his first time around / He doesn’t speak the language / He holds no currency / He is a foreign man emphasizes these points. Imagery is invoked of a befuddled middle class American who is out of their element (albeit intentionally), stumbling upon himself and everything in his way on his personal quest. But redemption is around the corner: He is surrounded by the sound / The sound / Cattle in the marketplace / Scatterlings and orphanages / He looks around around / He sees angels in the architecture / Spinning in infinity / He says Amen and Hallelujah. Here is the climax, provided concisely in the last four lines. Paul Simon’s character has found satisfaction by depriving himself of the comforts that allowed and promoted his stagnation as an individual. Within this song, the last four lines provide the optimistic outlook, triumphantly concluding with Amen and Hallelujah for still having the ability to better ones self.