Paul Simon – The Rhythm of the Saints
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
The first words Paul Simon sings on The Rhythm of the Saints are “Well, I'm accustomed to a smooth ride / Or maybe I'm a dog who's lost his bite.” It's a slightly self-mocking, or at least self-aware set of lines, coming after the surprise failure of Hearts & Bones, but Simon sings them after re-attaining mass popularity with his wildly popular Graceland album. Which is odd, but in keeping with an album that's both more subtle and more satisfying than even Graceland, flashy as it was, would lead you to expect. It's a record I only heard in full at the behest of a friend who informed me that me that my broad apathy towards Simon's career was ill-considered. I skipped right past Graceland towards this one for the self-evident reason that, as far as singles I heard as a child go, “The Obvious Child” beats the holy hell out of “You Can Call Me Al.”
That song is the prime example of the very odd style Simon employs on The Rhythm of the Saints: Obviously the fantastic drumming of the Brazilian Grupo Cultural Olodum serves to generate most of the sonic interest (the rest of the song being basically Simon's normal acoustic strum married neatly to the drumming and some horn hits for flavor) but despite the rhythmic complexity on display it's actually very smooth and soft. Its successor, “Can't Run But,” only makes that tendency more pronounced, a gorgeously understated blend of talking drum, triangle, casinet, and chicote as well as the mysteriously vague “percussion” that combines to make a vivid, constantly shifting backdrop over which Simon mutters impressionistically.
Most accounts of the album I've read have focused on the foreignness of many of the collaborators: Simon's role in “inventing” “world music,” for instance. While such a political or sociological account can be interesting and is certainly valid, I can't say it plays much of a role in how I listen to the album, or how much I love it. Maybe it's the distance of years, but I never get the impression that Simon was seeking to be the savior/popularizer of Brazilian music or that the musicians who make up so much of the sound of The Rhythm of the Saints thought of him as anything other than another collaborator. Certainly there are things about this sound that Simon likes (Vincent Nguini, who co-wrote the supple, generous and vaguely cynical “The Coast” still plays with Simon today), but this is a guy who has continuously cast around for new sounds and settings since before ditching Garfunkel. Hell, today he'd probably enlist someone like Brian Eno to give him a new set of backgrounds to bounce off of (oh, wait...).
The reason this music works so well, however, is because Simon never sounds parasitic. As with Graceland you could seek out the un-Simoned versions of the musicians Simon works with (although I'm not sure if there's a compilation out there that's as right-on-target as The Indestructible Beat of Soweto was for Graceland) but Simon wasn't interested in getting Grupo Cultural Olodum or Uakti or any of the other people or groups he enlists here (which also includes artists as “western” as Ringo Starr and JJ Cale) to conform to his sound—and besides, does he really have one? Sure, there's the old Simon and Garfunkel sound (so do you mean “Mrs. Robinson,” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” or “The Only Living Boy in New York” when you say that?), and then “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” “Kodachrome,” “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Mother and Child Reunion,” and so forth. The only thing that's ever really connected Simon's work is the sound of his voice and a particular way of talking about things. He can't even lay claim to a consistent set of themes throughout his work unless you want to get really general: love, sex, politics, happiness.
Simon isn't so much protean as he is magpie-ish, flitting from sound to sound as he discovers them regardless of hipness, using them as a base from which to do his thing, which means he's a lot closer to being the uncool David Bowie than I would have guessed. The albums where he brings in others with strong aesthetic visions result not in a Paul Simon Album (this time with African/Brazilian/Eno touches), but in a naturalized hybrid between Simon's rather schlubby but good-hearted persona and surprisingly witty take on things and, in this album's case, a richly satisfying melange of South and Central American rhythms and techniques along with continued African influences and, err, the Brecker Brothers (who acquit themselves surprisingly well, mostly because they fit in seamlessly, like everyone else on the album).
But Simon deserves a bit more credit than just being the voice in front of the songs; he produced the album, putting it together in more than one sense. More so than almost any other album from 1990, the original CD issue of The Rhythm of the Saints still sounds fantastic—dating from before the loudness wars, with a luscious sense of space that allows your ears to follow the multiple rhythms and melodies weaving through every song. Simon's decision to have the rhythms form the heart and soul of the music and yet remain glowingly soft instead of hard-edged was at first baffling but quickly becomes one of the record's best features; I love a group like Konono No. 1 as much as the next not-really-into-world-music guy, but that sort of (awesomely) manic beat-focus is common enough that seeing someone take it in the other direction is compelling.
One of the problems people might have with The Rhythm of the Saints is that the beats and horns here make up elements that normally would lead us to the dancefloor but Simon arranges it so that the album is just as suited to an afternoon of quiet contemplation (even the raucous “The Obvious Child” has a restrained middle eight, bass drums rumbling gently in the background). Perfect for yuppies, maybe not so much for those who at the time defined themselves as non-yuppies. But try putting on this record in the morning with a hangover and you'll soon appreciate being able to hear rhythmically complex music that soothes rather than exacerbates headaches.
According to the album's Wikipedia page Simon originally intended the album's running order to be strikingly different until Warner demanded “The Obvious Child” be placed first (I'm not sure of the logic of making sure the single is always the lead-off, but I'm also not a record company executive). If that claim isn't an elaborate hoax you just have to admire Simon more; leaving “The Obvious Child” as a bright sunburst in the middle of the album and easing the listener in via the quietly joyous “The Coast” and then the now-second side highlight “She Moves On” makes a lot more sense than having the single stuck on the beginning, where it seems more incongruous.
“She Moves On” especially nails what's so good and satisfying about The Rhythm of the Saints. Starting with hand percussion that builds up into another of the satisfyingly polyphonic webs that underlay these songs (this time with occasional finger-poppin' bass), the band winds up wandering into the same effect Eno and the Talking Heads got on the first half of Remain in Light—always in motion, always the same. Teasing guitar almost-riffs and half heard horn refrains float over the percussion as Simon and his backing vocalists sing elliptically about a “she” that remains forever out of reach (“She takes the corner / That's all she takes” might be his best punchline here). Near the end Simon and horns surge into something a bit more heartfelt: “And then I fall to my knees / I grow weak, I grow slack / As if she captured the breath of my voice in a bottle / And I can't catch it back.”
The rhythms keep pulsing softly as he sings, the better to end the song on a note of a fatalistic contentment. “But I feel good / It's a fine day / The way the sun hits off the runway / A cloud shifts / The plane lifts / She moves on.” That kind of unobtrusive heartbreak, poetry even, is characteristic of The Rhythm of the Saints, a record that keeps things understated despite drafting a three-continent team of musicians, that marks the peak of Simon's sonic wanderlust. It seems odd to say this about a record that went multi-platinum, but it deserves a wider audience and there may very well be a dusty copy of it in your parents' CD collection as we speak.