Friday, March 22, 2019

Paul Simon 11: The Rhythm Of The Saints

After Graceland had paid off so handsomely, the world wondered what Paul Simon could possibly do to better it, much less equal it. While he didn’t go back to the South African well, The Rhythm Of The Saints did explore third-world rhythms and sounds, predominantly from Brazil, to inspire his words, with varying results.
“The Obvious Child” is based around Brazilian parade drums, but could easily stand on its own without all that. If anything, the drums mask the similarity in the first verse to his delivery in “You Can Call Me Al”. A snaky melody with subtle percussion underpins “Can’t Run But”, which manages to be hypnotic considering he limits his own vocals to about three notes. “The Coast” has a nice loping rhythm along the lines of “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, and even gives co-writing credit to guitarist Vincent Nguini. Similarly we hear echoes of “Under African Skies” in “Proof” with horn parts that would be mimicked by Chevy Chase and Steve Martin in a video that didn’t help to sell the album any. The most haunting track is “Further To Fly”, with its complicated masked meter and lyrics that seem to address the search for love as well as a fear of aging and death.
The aftermath of the search is explored in “She Moves On”, which now sounds very similar to a Talking Heads rhythm from around the same time. “Born At The Right Time” stays in the same tempo but presents a more upbeat tale, complete with a singalong chorus and a hint of accordion. “The Cool, Cool River” is an ambitious track, starting with a complicated rhythm and almost forboding melody, stopping off at slightly dreamier interludes, and best of all, a few decisive horn blasts for the final run. Milton Nascimento co-wrote “Spirit Voices” and adds some of his own, but by now the basic tempo has become generic, Simon’s phrasing almost arbitrary, just as the title track mostly dribbles to a fade.
The Rhythm Of The Saints wasn’t a hit on the Graceland level—how could it be?—but people liked it and bought it. It also hasn’t had the legs its predecessor had, as the weaknesses only become more pronounced as the decades roll by. Throughout the album, he sings in a gentle tone, which is fine, but with few exceptions doesn’t help each of the songs stand out from each other.
According to Wikipedia, citing a magazine article we’ve yet to find or confirm, the album had an different sequence before the label insisted on opening with “The Obvious Child”, rather than having it at the top of side two (despite that being where “You Can Call Me Al” happened to sit). The original sequence basically flips the sides, but doesn’t present any more dynamic an effect. (The expanded CD helps widen the picture, with a very nice acoustic demo of “Born At The Right Time” and “Thelma”, a great pop song left out in the first place, likely because it’s so direct compared to the other lyrics.)

Paul Simon The Rhythm Of The Saints (1990)—3
2004 CD reissue: same as 1983, plus 4 extra tracks

1 comment:

  1. “The Obvious, Child” was a marvelous introduction to the album. One of his best singles, with lyrics that are both abstract and moving, and the drums kick immediately. (And my inner Grammar Cop came out again. Paul uses “obvious” as a noun in the lyrics, not an adjective!). As for the rest of the album, it’s all about the grooves. The percussion predominates the tracks, far more so than on “Graceland”. Another big favorite is the next track. I really like the marimba (or whatever it is). The joyous backing vocals on "Born at the Right Time" make that one stand out, as well. The other tracks aren’t quite as strong, but I am intrigued by his continuing impressionistic lyrics. I agree that the album peters out with the last two tracks. On the whole, I like this one as much as “Graceland”, even though it usually doesn’t get as much respect.