The Rhythm of the Saints
By John McAlley
On Graceland, Paul Simon's spirited, cross-cultural 1986 masterpiece, the singer-songwriter was "looking for a shot of redemption." Over the course of his brilliant solo career to that point, Simon had dutifully paraded his tangled emotions on the epics of despair Paul Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years, as well as on the slightly less constrained There Goes Rhymin' Simon and Hearts and Bones. But on Graceland, he showed a willingness to explore a world of ideas and feelings outside the labyrinthine complexity of his own psyche. Lifted to higher ground by the force of that album's lively South African grooves, the notorious pop fatalist found himself singing, "I've reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland." The feeling of transcendence was tangible.
The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon's first collection of new material in four years, extends his reach not only further into the riches of world-beat music but further into the realm of the spiritual. The idioms that drive the new record are the guitar stylings of West African pop and the ritual rhythms of candomblé, a syncretic Afro-Brazilian cult that formed in South America when West Africans were displaced there during the diaspora. Simon has taken the primitive, religious roots of this music as inspiration for a song cycle that examines with visionary beauty and brooding intensity the viability of faith in a corrupt, heartless and sometimes merely predictable world.
Graceland derived much of its buoyancy from the jumping township jive that Simon adopted, with relatively little revision, as its musical heart and soul. In this regard, The Rhythm of the Saints—a record that marries two distantly related world-beat forms into a vibrant, textured hybrid—is more the product of Simon's peerless studio craftsmanship. After recording the album's dramatic rhythm tracks in Brazil, Simon returned to New York, where he and Vincent Nguini, a Cameroon native, floated vivid, circular guitar patterns over the raw percussive cadences. Melodies, lyrics and pop-influenced arrangements rose out of repeated listenings to these bare-bones tracks as Simon shaped them into songs. The resultant sound is less joyously idiosyncratic than the energetic mbaqanga that fueled Graceland—there are fewer bounding bass lines and only discreet uses of accordion—but no less arresting. If The Rhythm of the Saints lacks Graceland's relentless bounce, its somber and bright tones shift in ways that illuminate the album's intricate mosaic of dark and redemptive themes.
The album explodes into life with the thunderous drumming of Olodum, a ten-man percussion group from Bahia, on "The Obvious Child," the opening track and first single. In that song Simon adopts the voice of an Everyman whose days have become defined by their limitations and dogged ordinariness. Confronted by his mortality, Simon's protagonist "wanders beyond" the "interior walls" of his consciousness to seek comfort in a higher authority. "The cross is in the ballpark," Simon sings. "Why deny the obvious child?" Simon proposes renewal through spiritual awakening on "The Coast," an exultant parable about a family of traveling musicians whose strained existence is altered after they take refuge "in the harbor church of St. Cecilia"—significantly, the patron saint of music. Bathed in morning sunlight, the members of the group celebrate the Resurrection, and, for their devotion, are led out of "the shadow of the valley" to salvation.
In counterpoint to these portraits of human affirmation, Simon casts haunted images of damage and helplessness. On the hypnotic "Can't Run But," he parallels with unrelenting grimness the steady erosion of the environment, romantic love and even the ability of music to transport the soul. "She Moves On" depicts a man endlessly undone by elusive lovers. And on "Further to Fly," Simon skewers our desperate yearnings ("the open palm of desire") with spirit-crushing cynicism: "A broken laugh a broken fever/Take it up with the great deceiver/Who looks you in the eye/And says, Baby, don't cry."
In the Brazilian tradition, music and poetry are closely linked, and on The Rhythm of the Saints, Simon word-paints exhaustively. Many of these art songs are aggressively impressionistic and nonlinear—at times, to the point of opacity. The record requires several listenings before its abstract ideas begin to emerge and take on flesh, but when Simon's literary gambles pay off—as they do to best effect on "The Cool, Cool River"—the results are breathtakingly visceral.
Powered by a surging, jagged 9/8 time signature, "The Cool, Cool River" runs through the thematic center of the album. After sketching a canvas of violence, oppression and isolation, Simon fixes the moment when a soul takes flight: "Anger and no one can heal it/Slides through the metal detector/Lives like a mole in a motel/A slide in a slide projector/The cool, cool river/Sweeps the wild, white ocean/The rage of love turns inward/To prayers of deep devotion." In a startling moment, Simon offers this stark epiphany: "And I believe in the future/We shall suffer no more/Maybe not in my lifetime/But in yours I feel sure."
There's an ironic detachment in these lines that undercuts Simon's leap of faith. That tension is part of the reason why—despite the album's bold conviction and the soaring beauty of its most transcendent hymns, "Born at the Right Time" and "Spirit Voices"—it is finally so difficult to locate Simon in any definitive way at the album's emotional core. By any measure, The Rhythm of the Saints is Simon's least autobiographical work—which makes a certain amount of sense. As a confessional artist in the post-Freudian era, Simon has set his course through the world of the analytical, not the spiritual. But he's smart enough to wonder if there are more things in heaven and earth than are known in his philosophy. Smart enough to wonder, and to know the rhythm of the saints when he feels it.