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Groove to Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints

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Music legend Paul Simon experienced a creative renaissance in the mid-80s, beginning with 1986's Graceland. Incorporating African rhythms and the outstanding group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon earned critical acclaim for introducing generations of listeners to African music. In addition, he experienced an enormous surge in popularity. Today, critics and fans cite Graceland as one of the most important albums of the 1980s. Yet his 1990 followup, The Rhythm of the Saints, met with less success commercially, moving two million copies, according to All Music. Unfairly overlooked, Simon's effort continued his exploration of African music, this time adding Brazilian percussion. While earning less attention than his previous album, The Rhythm of the Saints deserves another listen for its lyrics, Simon's guiding voice, and overall musicianship.

Thundering drums greet the listener on the opening track, "The Obvious Child." The song tells of growing up, getting married, and having children. The narrator expresses weariness: "I'm accustomed to a smooth ride/Or maybe I'm a dog who's lost its bite" Simon sings, but the voice gains strength when reminiscing about his youth: "And we said these songs are true/These days are ours/These tears are free," with the Brazilian percussion punctuating every word.Paul Simon's The Rhythm of the Saints This emotional conflict continues in the unusual "Can't Run But," which addresses everything from acid rain to the state of the music business: "Down by the river bank/A blues band arrives/The music suffers/The music business thrives." Percussion subtly weaves throughout the track, slightly off tempo in some places.

The seemingly off-tempo beat and rhythm guitar also drive "The Cool, Cool River," while its bass-dominated sound adds to the exotic tone. As suggested in the title, the song's tempo and lyrics suggests constant motion: the song begins with Simon crooning "Moves like a fist through the traffic," but the words suggest David conquering Goliath: "The cool, cool river/Sweeps the wild, white ocean." Building on this idea, Simon expresses optimism that good can defeat evil: "And I believe in the future/We shall suffer no more/Maybe not in my lifetime/But in yours I feel sure," Simon sings with confidence.

Another standout track, "She Moves On" also contains intricate percussion. Although not as prominent as on "The Obvious Child," the drums and other percussion drive the song. Like "The Cool, Cool River," the lyrics suggest movement: "The way the sun hits off the runway/A cloud shifts/The plane lifts/She moves on." Unlike the previous song, however, these words suggest pessimism that the woman in the song will find true love: "She says 'maybe these emotions are as near to love as love will ever be'.'" Simon's clear voice is cushioned by its edgy beat and jangling guitar, lending the track a nervous tone. That same edginess is present in "Proof," with booming horns added to the mix.

Perhaps the most accessible song on The Rhythm of the Saints is "Born at the Right Time," which should have been the first single. The gentle rhythms, the pretty melody, and Simon's catchy lyrics make for a memorable tune. Listeners will find themselves singing along with the chorus: "Never been lonely/Never been lied to/Never had to scuffle in fear/Nothing denied to." Filled with lilting African rhythms, "Born at the Right Time" most clearly connects to Graceland's sound. Another clear connection to the famed album is through "The Coast," which boasts African rhythms with nods to Brazil's presence: "A family of musicians took shelter for the night/…Two guitars, bata, bass drum and tambourine/Rows of jericho and bougainvillea," Simon sings.

In addition to Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Rhythm of the Saints boasts some of the best musicians in the business: Adrian Belew, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, J. J. Cale, Steve Gadd, Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Santos, and Kim Wilson. Legends such as Hugh Masekela add even greater credibility to the project, which provides a further education in world music.

While not as well known as Graceland, The Rhythm of the Saints deserves to be known as more than "Graceland's followup." It represents Simon's gift as a lyricist and catalyst in bringing together seemingly disparate musical forms, creating a beautiful, unusual, and exotic mixture. For excellent live versions of "The Obvious Child," "She Moves On," "Born at the Right Time," "The Cool, Cool River," "Proof," and "The Coast" (as well as several Graceland tracks), see the 1991 album Concert in the Park.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • http://donaldgibson.blogspot.com/ Donald Gibson

    Great job, Kit. I love both albums, but I’ve always preferred Rhythm of the Saints to Graceland. To me it sounds more confident and sonically cohesive than its predecessor.

    The first time I saw Paul Simon live was in ’99 on a double bill with Bob Dylan. And for his set, Simon played the majority of Rhythm, which just blew my mind. I remember “The Obvious Child,” “Proof” and “Further to Fly” as being particularly amazing.

  • Joann

    It’s great to see this album get some attention after so many years. It’s one of my all-time favorite albums. I was just thinking through “Born at the Right Time” on my drive home this week–probably becauase it’s starting to look like spring outside. The songs do stick with a person, and they always seem fresh.