Friday 4 July 2008

Paul Simon "Rhythm Of The Saints" (1990) ('Core' Review #94, Revised Edition 2014)

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Paul Simon "The Rhythm Of The Saints" (1991)

Track Listing: The Obvious Child/ Can’t Run, But/ The Coast/ Proof/ Further To Fly// She Moves On/ Born At The Right Time/ The Cool Cool River/ Spirit Voices/ The Rhythm Of The Saints (UK and US tracklisting)

‘To overcome an obstacle or an enemy, to dominate the impossible in your life, reach in the darkness…’

There is a sound I hear in my head late at night dear readers that pulsates to its own ever-changing beat. Sometimes it twists and turns to sound like an album I have been listening to repeatedly. Sometimes it’s something I can’t quite put my finger on but soundsa familiar. Sometimes, when I’m sick, it sounds like The Spice Girls. Mostly, though, it sounds like ‘The Rhythm Of The Saints’. For this is an album that sounds completely and utterly different to any other album I have ever owned and my subconscious is still, I think trying to process it – either that or Paul Simon more than anyone else tapped into the background musical stream of life (or I have too much cheese before bed time). This is a record dominated by percussion that plays in a see-sawing motion effect throughout, it’s somehow much more primal than any other record I own, as if cavemen have been sent forward in time and every modern sound is subservient to the flick of their wrists as they change tempo or feel. And yet ‘Rhythm’ is decidedly not a primitive work: the unique way it was made meant that Paul had a lot of time to work on his lyrics and combine them more directly to each changing beat of the music so that a lot of what we get sounds more like poetry than normal, unstructured and fragmentary. Taken together this record has a really hallucinatory feel to it, as if it’s a dream that is playing just out of reach of the human psyche to hear – and yet the lines that sink in are amongst some of Paul’s career best, full of truly inspired thoughts about the difficulties of life and how to live it. Though as rooted to Brazil as ‘Graceland’ was to Africa, this is really an album for all of humanity, our animalistic side coupled together with the doubts and fears that make us human. The result is a record quite unlike anything else around, one where the stakes are bigger, the threats are stronger and the courage we need to face them more powerful. This is an album to cling to in times of shark infested waters, to right you when the world seems to have gone insane and to light a candle to help us to reach out in the darkness.

As so often happens with this project, the only thing this album got wrong was the timing (simple pop was 1990’s obsession, not complex epics like this one, while the end of the cold war in 1989 robbed this often dark album of much of its power) and the inevitable comparisons to what came before, with this album darker, edgier and more unpredictable than ‘Graceland’. 'The Rhythm Of The Saints' is the dark horse of the Paul Simon catalogue; the one that outsold practically all of Paul's other records but never gets the credit it deserves because of its predecessor - the record that hovers over this record like a ghost even though they have nothing in common except a reliance on the sound of one culture and an emphasis on rhythm. Like 'Graceland' this album unites the topical concerns of the country where most of it was made with Paul's still determinedly American voice and features several big guest-names. For years 'Rhythm' has been derided as a pale copy of 'Graceland' and that’s a shame – because whereas Graceland dips its toe into the water of new and interesting sounds and debates about whether it wants to go in for a full ducking, ‘Saints’ dives in headfirst, embracing a new sound, a new culture, a new way of thinking, even a new way of writing that makes 'Saints' quite unlike any other record that's ever existed. Now, unlike the rest of the world and his record collection I disliked most of 'Graceland', which wasn't half as clever as people seemed to think it was, with all that time spent combining two styles that didn't make for an easy fit and which people tended to talk about a) because of the 'controversy' behind it ('Paul Simon broke apartheid to steal our music!', the biggest non-story since the press told us that, gee, The Monkees were only acting the part of a pop band during their TV series which also features spies, mad scientists and Royalty from made up continents every week) b) because it helped launch the careers of Ladysmith Black Mambozo (who were doing quite respectably anyway before getting the call from Paul) and c) because the title track is kinda catchy. Forget all that nonsense though because, perhaps as penance perhaps through inspiration, 'The Rhythm Of The Saints' is the real deal, a record that's more consistent than any other in Paul's back catalogue, with all ten songs very different and all very excellent, and a sound and spirit that unites them all quite unlike any other record I own.

Paul so immersed himself into Brazilian culture that none of these songs were actually written until they were recorded. If that sounds odd, then all that really means is that Paul came up with a grand plan for his record, planning each song's tempo and rough rhythmic outline before writing any words and later tying them into his 'grand masterplan'. As intended by Paul Simon, this album should have used the clever and completely unique trick of making every song on the album start in one key and modulate up or down into another by the song’s end, with the next track following directly on from the same key as its predecessor, just as if these songs were all parts of the same puzzle Paul is trying to solve across ten different keys. As if this wasn’t clever enough, the songs went up a key for every track on the original side one and down a key again on the second, returning to their starting point should you want to listen to the album again as a sort of continual loop (Side One - The Coast/She Moves On/Proof/Born At The Right Time/Cool Cool River. Side Two - The Obvious Child/Can't Run But/Spirit Voices/Further To Fly/The Rhythm Of The Saints (possibly joined by palette cleansing album outtake [306] 'Thelma' at the end of the first side - while not up to the rest of the album this charming outtake makes a fine addition to the 200s CD re-issue of the album). It’s a genius idea and as heard in its original running order it works even better than the finished version. Alas Warner Brothers, keen for a big seller on the back of 'Graceland' got involved and 'encouraged' Paul that no one would 'get' his running order and asked for the intended singles ('The Obvious Child' and 'She Moves On') to be placed at the start of each album 'side' (even though the latter never was released as a single in the end). We say - phooey! You might not understand the whole concept of key changes unless you’re a musician, but ‘Rhythm’ is one of those ideas that works whether you understand the concept or not - your ears will follow the way that one track seems to 'pick up' where another left off quite nicely without any musical knowledge whatsoever (this is, after all, an album where your sub-conscious is already doing most of the 'listening' for you, what with hypnotic phrases and themes picked up across the entire record). Considering that Paul’s last album was the record-breaking ‘Graceland’ which must have given Paul a lot of record company clout I am, frankly, amazed that Simon acquiesced to this demand: you may think the album as it stands now sounds good, but that’s nothing compared to what it could have sounded like (or does sound like, if you’re monekynuts enough to spend five minutes programming your CD player every time you want to hear the CD like I do).

After setting each of these rhythm tracks Paul then hired Brazil's best musicians (and some new friends from 'Graceland') to play pre-discussed basic melodies, to set tempos and keys, but with a wide open canvas onto which to paint more of 'them' and less of Paul. Only after the backing tracks were completed did Paul feverishly work on finishing his songs, fitting fragments of lyric to each one as the recordings suggested different ideas to him. As a result of being semi-improvised, the songs shift suddenly in both mood and tempo throughout the record and the lyrics are among Paul’s most elliptical and fragmented, lacking their composer’s usual craftsmanship verses and choruses and being more about mood and atmosphere than plot development and resolution. Trust me though, this is a good thing, with practically all the lyrics on this album among the most poetic and awe-inspiring on the list, full of stream of consciousness ideas that nevertheless seem to amount to something when taken as a whole, despite the fact that they can be read on many different levels at once. That explains why 'Rhythm' has such a blurry, hazy quality about it, with the lyrics working to a slightly different structure than normal (if not always first then Paul's lyrics did tend to come along at the same as the music; here though Paul's setting them to something that already exists) and heard as the accompaniment to a series of unrelenting rhythms best described as 'hypnotic'. This also pushes his lyric writing to its limit: gone are the usual 'story songs' in favour of elliptical haiku-like poetry that has  to be immediately strong and visual and which inspires several nuggets of Paul Simon genius which are among his most quotable ('Some have died, some have fled from themselves, or struggled from here to get there' 'Faith is an island in a setting sun - but proof is the bottom line for everyone' 'Like a pickpocket accidentally brushing your thigh, further to fly' 'These prayers are the constant road across the wilderness' 'A mole in a motel - a slide in a slide projector' 'To overcome an obstacle or an enemy - reach in the darkness!')

A lazy journalist might describe this as a 'world' or 'new age' album (you know the sort of thing, Enya on holiday celebrating a womble flowing or some such nonsense) but that's not quite right either: 'Rhythm Of The Saints' is more like the tablet of instructions being handed down to Moses through a cloud or all of human nature gradually bonding in the primordial soup. That's highly apt given that one of the main themes of this album is faith. Until now religion has been something to be feared or used for ill-gotten gain on Paul Simon records, from the condemnation of Christianity [114] 'Blessed' on 'Sounds Of Silence' to the weary struggle of the Jews on [201] 'Silent Eyes'. On this album religion is dying out across the world – and while Paul has his differences with the figures who preach it sometimes in all denominations he is angry that all around the world now spiritualism has been replaced by business and personal needs (‘That is worth some money!’ is the bitter payline to ‘The Coast’, a spiritual song of healing power). This is something which alarms Paul despite the atheist songs he wrote earlier in his career, simply because he thinks man has stopped believing in a higher purpose and thinks he is no longer answerable to anybody but himself – and man is very very flawed, as his lyrics of comfort and hope and struggle across this album make clear. If you study it closely, ‘Saints’ contains a great deal of advice about putting your life in order, overcoming obstacles and getting the most out of your destiny – and yet this advice isn’t as patronising as it sounds in lesser hands, simply because its revealed to us in such a hap-hazard fragmented way that the listener is meant to pic and mix their way through the lyrics, sifting for the lyrics that mean most to them. Here Paul tries to put into words the comfort that the people around him take from their unshaken belief not just in God but a better life in the 'next' world that will make suffering worth-while (just look at the nation's sportsmen, from Pele to Arton Senna, who both spoke about 'God' in the way that most footballers and racing drivers dedicate wins to their family or managers).

While this is the start of a trend that will get Paul thinking of religion more and more the older he gets (to the point where 2012's 'So Beautiful Or So What?' spoke about little else), for now religion means sorrow in the short-term; great joy in the long-term. People nowadays are too impatient for spirituality to work when all the people want is ‘proof’ or they won’t believe in something. Note also the sheer amount of religious figures who crop up on this album who are ambiguous enough to stand for other things too – such as ‘the church of St Cecilia’ (who was actually the patron saint of music in Christinaity) or the way that in the West ‘Sonny’ reads his high-school yearbook like a Bible, searching for answers from those he used to know. Religion on this album is not the enemy or the hero either, but Paul makes it clear that mankind needs something to cling on to and believe in across dark times, something bigger than we are which means that our lives are not empty, short and pointless – and religion is better than nothing. The ‘saints’ aspect of the title, though, is surely ironic: the whole point of this album is that there are no saints and sinners, heroes and villains, that all of us are trying to do our best in a world that’s often difficult and problematic and that it’s our differences on how to pursue these that puts us at odds with out fellow man.

This is the kind of thing Paul might have picked up from his time in Brazil, where the sheer belief in a next world preferable to this one remains stronger than it does in most of th rest of the world and wherte faith is often the only thing as family has. This album sounds often as if Paul has been listening to the locals as he made this album, so much more so than in Africa, and has heard from a poor family rueing their circumstances but with unshaken belief in a better afterlife to come after this one. For all of his better ‘luck’ (purely for being born American in a land where he has more chance to make his career) Paul feels inferior to this belief and being an open songwriter  this sheer faith seems to have piqued his curiosity. I mean, just say these people are right? But Paul doesn’t have answers either – part of the brilliance of this album is that instead of offering simple solutions it makes life seem much bigger, more complex and fascinating than one God who can save us all. 'Saints' is an album full of mysteries, locked doors that won't open and a plan for mankind that's merely sketched in. Throughout there's a sense of urgency about seeing what happens next ('I can't run but I can walk much faster than this!') and a demand for proof, which sounds like the last of his Westernised spirit trying to take life on it sown terms, balanced against simple faith that it will all come together in this life or the next and such signs as a ‘sky flecked with hope’. Indeed, faith is the cornerstone of this album,the belief that 'the cross is in the ball-park' (an album image uniting a very Westernised basketball term with the idea that religion is roughly right in spiritual matters), faith that people have 'further to fly' than the lot they are born into, faith that the inhabitants of Brazil being born circa 1991 and around the world will inherit better by being 'Born At The Right Time' in a world that’s less infused with cold war chaos and dictatorships, faith that the world are ruled by 'spirit voices' at night we can’t hear thanks to our materialism in the day, faith that the present is worth suffering because 'in the future we will suffer no more', faith that darkness can be overcome if you 'reach' in it blindly for guide and comfort from something out there. 'Proof' is a 'Western' song asking for evidence, but Paul seems to side with his Brazilian hosts that faith is much more romantic - and in the end much more 'useful' in coping with heavy burdens than criticising things no one will know for certain until they die. Too many people are desperate for immediate answers, Paul tells us in the title and final song, their prayers remaining unanswered 'like a beggar at your sleeve' - but there is a feeling that they will be answered in full some day by somebody. This alone marks a huge development in Paul's ideas since 'Blessed' and will soon set him off debtaing the idea further: from what it does to the people who believe in it when other s don’t (the best passages of ‘The Capeman’) to Paul’s general debate about what God is and whether he exists (‘You’re The One’) to his own personal coming to terms with his maker in his old age (‘Surprise’). While still more spiritual than 'religious', 'Saints' is a record that from its title down accepts the possibility for the first time that religion might hold answers and that's what most of this record us about really: accepting the possibility that there is something else we can’t see out there, that obstacles can be overcome, that we can do better, walk much faster, that we can stop our self-inflicted world problems and that we are born at the right time. Despite the poverty-laced lyrics, despite the tales of human greed, even with poor Sonny's empty life flashing behind him as he takes down his yearbooks and counts off the friends who have died or struggled or lost the fight with life, this is Paul's most uplifting work, with the promise that all will be revealed in time and an optimism and hope that even 'Rhymin' Simon' can't match.

Many of these songs also touch on Brazilian themes (mainly the poverty Paul experienced while there - secondhand ex-fashionable clothes passed down to them from donations in the West a slap in the face, 'rich people waving at the door' reminding them of a different richer culture, plus the injured eco-system on 'The Coast' caused by the rich half a world away) but unlike 'Graceland' this isn't explicit; 'Rhythm' isn't quite a 'Brazilian' album in the way that 'Graceland' was an 'African' one - it's more a look at the similarities between cultures and how mankind' greed and misunderstandings always prevent him from greatness. Brazil was an obvious place for Paul Simon to go after his African sabbatical. A land often of great suffering, with some of the lowest average pay packets of any country, it's also a place known for it's colourful celebrating carnivals, party atmosphere and great faith. The duality Paul must have experienced while working there (he wrote these songs later back in America, remember) seem to have affected his writing far more than 'Graceland' (of which only [270] 'Homeless' can truly be considered an 'African' song). Many of these songs seem to come in two 'halves': 'That is worth some money!' Paul sarcastically cackles after informing us about an injured coast ruined by human beings because that’s how Americans are taught to think even on a song that’s otherwise greatly spiritual; perhaps the greatest unsung song in Paul's back catalogue 'Further To Fly' feels life and its problems so deeply it hurts and yet still pauses mid-song urging us that 'there will come a time when I will lose you' - that nothing can fly forever even though its so important to try. However the key song here is the turbulent 'Cool Cool River', ranging between angry guitar-slashing entrapment between scenes of being trapped and a glorious chorus that twice soothes the troubled song, with a promise that life will be better 'maybe not in my lifetime - but in yours, I feel sure', the way so many religious devotees believe in any religion. If, in truth, even Paul feels unable how to provide comfort in times of suffering ('Sometimes even music cannot substitute for tears!') many of his words and wise ones and say a great deal in a very short space of time. Of all of Paul's records it's 'Saints' that most lives up to his reputation as a 'poet' and while there might be better individual songs on other Paul Simon LPs, taken as a collective schematic whole 'Rhythm Of The Saints' is his most vital, inspired record temporally freed from the need to stick to traditional Western ideas of record making.

Like parts of ‘Graceland’ but more so, the songs spiral up around the atmosphere created by the rhythm section, with the dozens of overdubbed guitars, keyboards, vocals and horn parts weaving their own webs of sound around the backing, without distracting your ears from the relentless march of drummers on every track. In fact, I would hazard a guess that Rhythm Of The Saints has more percussion parts than any album ever released that wasn't released solely for fans of drumming (such as, say, Mickey Hart’s albums during time off from the Grateful Dead) and the sheer range of criss-crossing rhythms give the album as a whole a truly hypnotic effect, catching your ears in such a way that you may never hear ‘ordinary’ Western drum parts in quite the same way ever again (any record you play straight after this one will sound painfully thin in the percussion department). The dozens of hard-working drummers are also tremendously well recorded, so clear at times that it sounds like a tribe of Brazilian percussionists has just broken into your living room and set up house in the cupboard under the stairs and their spooky mystery really does give this album a thematic unity that hold these often sparse and elliptical songs together. This gives the album the effect of being both fluid, twisting and turning as life changes all around us on an instinctive drum lick that every musician picks up on without really hearing it, and ‘real’, physical in a way that other cerebral albums like this one can never quite pull off. They also sound quite brilliant. I can kind of see why Warner Brothers insisted on one running order change - the opening few seconds of 'The Obvious Child' immediately sweep everything away with it: a clattering of drums that erupt out of the speakers and demand your attention, as if Paul is wiping every previous idea he’s ever had (even on a track that’s ultimately about nostalgia). Other songs are quieter, but what you take away most from this record isn't melody or lyrics but that unending sense of rhythm; the way that every song has a certain 'sway' about it. There goes Rhythm Simon, in other words.

If the rhythm is what you notice first and remember most about this album, however, there is still plenty of interest going on just below the surface. Many critics, who were mixed about this album, complained that there were less interesting melodies than on 'Graceland'. All I can say is that they clearly hadn't bothered listening past the opening three songs of 'Graceland' (which are the three interesting ones) or given 'Rhythm' enough time to grow. The melody-lines are all still pure Paul Simon, carefully crafted and balanced, sounding as if they have been around for centuries, not just a quarter of a century or so. Of course there are no instant burn-brainers like [156] 'Me and Julio' and [195] '50 Ways To Leave Your Lover' and in fact hooks and riffs are quite low on this album's list of sounds. It's also very hard to recall the tune to any of these words on first hearing, simply because the metre and scansion is so oddball and hard to fathom just from reading. However they are very much there: the sighs and rise and fall of 'Obvious Child', the nagging bluesy riff of ‘I Can’t Run, But’, the delicate soaring on 'The Coast' almost as fragile as the injured riverside it mourns, the powerful and painful 'Further To Fly' that grows more intense and reaches across more notes with each pass of the subtle melody, the album's lone singalong pop song 'Born At The Right Time', the peaks of agony and ecstasy on 'Cool Cool River', the oh so pretty title track - all of these are among Paul's most beautiful moments that will get stuck in your head eventually, exquisitely crafted and all the more impressive given the unusual way they were created.

Overall, 'The Rhythm Of The Saints' is our AAA nominated pick of the Paul Simon LPs and sits proudly at #10 on our 'all time records by anybody' list. The fact is there are no other albums that offers what 'Rhythm' does: that heavily percussive hypnotic feel, those elliptical mysterious lyrics, that feeling of struggled intermingled with hope and some of the loveliest melodies in musical history. No wonder this album is so close to my heart: I dare any philosopher to come up with words anywhere near this good - and all philosophers should release their work accompanied by energetic drumming! This record may take a few playings to 'get' to you. It doesn't immediately pounce on your sub-conscious and have you singing all day. There are very few songs that would work out of context of the album (and as we've seen, they should have sounded even better in the running order originally intended). There's no single song quite up to [98] 'Sounds Of Silence' [152] 'The Boxer', even [263] 'The Boy In The Bubble' ('Graceland' one lone out and out classic whose paranoia about the modern world infuses much of this album too). Even in its diluted form, however, ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ is every bit as radical, pioneering and downright brilliant as the classic songs Paul Simon was writing in his youth – and that’s saying something. Once again Paul Simon provides us with a rose between two thorns (seriously, 'Graceland' isn't half as clever or groundbreaking as people think and musical 'The Capeman' is worse, proof that Paul struggles to write from the point of view of other people completely) and was yet again simply unlucky that one of his most challenging yet rewarding albums came out just at a time when people weren’t prepared to work this hard for their music. The pop culture of the  first half of the1990s will become a steady stream of simple pop songs looking backwards whilst trying not to think too hard, but ‘Rhythm’ is an album that could have been made at any time, as timeless as the percussion that underpins the lyrics about spiritual quests. While 'Graceland' is the charming, outgoing chap every girl wants to fall in love with, it's the quieter younger brother 'Saints' that's the ideal life companion: catchy, deep and with a mindset and style unique solely to him. This album really shouldn’t be neglected just because it followed ‘Graceland’: through its recording technique, thematic unity and use of Brazilian rather than African sounds, ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ tries hard to plough a different field to its predecessor and is a very successful attempt at creating something all together new. There has been no other album like this one - and I'm willing to bet there never will be.

The Songs:

[296] The Obvious Child, opens furiously, with a lot of pent up energy similar to [163] ‘Kodochrome’ on another tale of life not being what you expected it to once be. This time though it’s told through the generations as Paul’s narrator ‘accustomed to a smoother ride’ and turned into ‘a dog that’s lost his bite’ by the weariness of life now watching the same thing happening to his middle-aged son ‘Sonny’ as his life too goes off track. A sweet nostalgic tale of a life that could have been different, Paul recalls a ‘roadsign’ and a girl, a crossroads that always made him wonder how his life might have turned out differently (is the ‘girl’ Kathy Chitty and is the roadsign in England? The fact the pair sing that ‘these songs are true, these days are ours’ is perhaps Paul’s most innocent verse since [132] ‘America’). After remembering a potential past Paul is haunted in the present, an insomniac trying once more to see [133] ‘Patterns’ in the lights that play against his wall (only this time, perhaps symbolically given [98] ‘The Sounds Of Silence’, it’s moonlight in the darkness). Paul says that to other people this is just daft, that ‘the sky is just the sky’, but that’s not the way he thinks – he knows there must be an outline for him he should be following, a clue set by someone for him to trace. The poignant middle eight makes it clear that its not just him either: whether by genetics, luck or because everybody does the same the camera pans away to watch his child ‘Sonny’ doing exactly the same thing. Turning to his high-school yearbook lik a Bible, he thumbs the familiar lines, remembering a time when he still could have ben anyone and when his hair was no longr thinning, as he sees the nams of friends who hav disappeared, committed suicide or died in accidents, their future no longer assured the way it once seemed. It’s a moving lyric this one, full of ifs maybs and might have beens, but Paul doesn’t leave it there. As well asd th ghosts of Christmasses past and present Paul feels the tug of the future. Against all odds he feels that it is all going to turn out, or close enough, that his lunge at life is still roughly in the ballpark of where he wants to go. The song is, like many on this album, rather opaque and obscure, but it is a song that speaks usually unsayable truths that touch on some long held Paul Simon themes such as the ‘failure’ of ‘One Trick Pony’ and the set paths of fate heard on ‘Hearts and Bones’. Perhaps the best feature of all is those booming Brazilian drums which are at their best on this track, with the Grupo Cultural Olodum playing at one despite containing a whole army of musicians, sounding not unlike all of humanity playing along in sympathy with the lyrics of being lost in the tide, whilst simultaneously being proactive and holding on to life noisily with everything they’ve got. It all maks for one of the most memorable openings to any album, though it perhaps works less well out of contxt of the album as just another pop singl, failing to match the sales of even the later ‘Gracland’ singles despit being better written.

[297a] I Can’t Run, But is, at least in this original recording of it, based around the unusual sound of Brazilian ensemble Uakti and Western virtuoso JJ Cale playing together, with the two sides merging together perfectly for one of Paul Simon’s occasional ‘paranoia’ songs, complete with a tune that seems to be relentless, unsettled and with a resolution always just out of reach. The lyrics are impressionistic in the extreme, but seem to have a theme of growing slower in middle age and being gradually written off by a society that seems preoccupied with youth, with Paul desperate to prove himself once more even though his reflexes are slower and his hunger less intense. There’s another ecological plea in the lyrics too, as the West who are most to blame for ruining the planet send a scientist to the Ukraine to find out what the people there already know – that life has been made unbearably difficult for those who already struggle because of the greed of people thy have never met doing things the locals cannot dream of. Further verses wrap this sense of stasis with a relationship that’s got stuck (almost certainly the one with Carri Fisher, whose on-off partnership ends permanently about now after a half-return in th mid 1980s), a ‘winding river around a heart’ that gets pulled tighter as more time is shared by both halves of the couple. A further few lines then take pot shots at a music world that’s settld for blandness and sals over daring and originality: ‘the music suffers baby, the music business thrives’ is one of Paul’s darkest and most satisfying lines. Paul, then, feels that he is trapped on multiple sides and nowhere close to where he wants to be in relationships, in his career, even where the planet seems to be heading. The lyrics build up to a confused climax as the pounding drums rise and fall and start over again, returning several times to the chorus line ‘I can’t run, but I can walk much faster than this’. This line like many on the album, is ambiguous enough to tie up all the threads as Paul gets impatient with himself and others. The song’s peculiar riff is perfect for this lyric, one that instead of catching the ear and pouncing the way most of Paul’s always seem to do waddles sideways like a crab, switching gears and instruments until suddenly exploding near the end of each pass. Only when the percussion gets into swing behind it does this track tak off, while J J Cale’s fluid improvised guitar lines find their way across the noise, the hint of another freer life that lies just over the horizon when Paul is at full run. A fascinating composition then, but more than the other tracks on this album it’s the performance that makes it – a [297b] version played ‘normally’ on regular instruments lacks this album’s spooky magic.

As next track [298] The Coast begins, you’re starting to get a feel for the album. Relentless drums playing what seems like a ridiculously complicated tempo, with some tuneful and simple guitar and keyboard work going on over the top. It’s the lyrics that stand out most in this song, though, perhaps more than any other track on the album, mixing well with the song’s mournful minor key and telling the story of what would probably have happened to Paul if he’d been born in Brazil – a group of musicians are playing in a church to ‘praise a soul’s returning to the earth’ because religion is the main outlet for musicians in Brazil and no doubt what many of them talked to Paul about during this album’s many lunch hours and tea breaks. But rather than talk about the glories of re-birth and second chances as you’d expect from a rhymin’ Simon song with a lovely flowing unwinding introduction like this, most of these lyrics are based around the album’s central theme of decay and lost traditions, painting a mournful picture of an ‘injured coast’ where traditions seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. The lyrics might have been inspired by Paul’s personal observations of Brazil and his knowledge of the local tradition of native drummers, whose slave ancestors were banned from playing the drums unless it was for ‘religious purposes’ – many of the musicians were so determined to carry on with their music that they changed their religion to Catholicism simply in order to play again. Is Paul here, instead, showing that music can be a worldwide religion on its own, with a group of survivors from yet another catastrophe huddled together in a church to let music wash away their fears and finding solace in music, under the watchful ye of the patron saint of music? Paul then knocks out the legs from under this song, though, mocking Western values with the sarcastic, growling middle eight about how the loss of heritage and tradition doesn’t matter if the country is making money from its exported music, putting on his best sarcastic businessman voice. Paul’s lyrics also flit from the present day to the past in the blink of an eye, perhaps hinting that music is timeless in a way that the politics in this song are not, detailing the problems for citizens of modern day Brazil hoping that things will get better for their offspring. Paul turns in one of his better vocals on this lazy, gently rolling song and his mournful elongated sigh on the line about ‘sorrows everywhere you turn’ not just in Brazil but around the globe is one of the most moving passages he’s yet to write. After all, this is another album song about missed opportunities: though the musicians can come together as a community after a catastroph we are not doing the same as a planet, leaving the poor to suffer along an ‘injured coast’, out of sight at the edge of the hemisphere and away from the ‘centre’ of the thoughts of most rock and roll audiences. At last Paul realises the parts of ‘Graceland’ that work best, contrasting one way of life against the other, and mourning that the one doesn’t care about the othr enough to take action. Impressively, Paul also manages to sound like a sympathetic local and not – like most people who commandeer foreign music for their own ends, parts of ‘Gracland’ included – a pitying tourist.

[299] Proof picks up on the same theme, saying how in the olden days belief used to be everything but in the modern world of scientific tests and logic, proof is the only action that will convince most people of something and faith is now ‘an island in the setting sun’. The lyrics aren’t as straightforward as this makes them sound, however, being among the most fragmented on the whole album and held together by a curious song structure that veers from quiet perseverance to urgent optimism. The future of the world is balancd against the fate of an ordinary couple from a ‘simple town: they have lots of optimism but have no guarantee that thir love will last. Sometimes they study the doubts on the faces of the other, hinted as if read through ‘reading glasses’ (a particularly clever line as each are ‘reading’ the other in case they see a change in their expression or manner that means that love is over, the cynical opposite to ‘rose-tinted glasses’). For Paul though the high list of divorces in the modern world is not because people don’t love each other as much but because they cannot trust to faith that their partner loves them. By the end Paul’s characters have come to a realisation that each other matters, as a ‘half moon’ arrives in the dark sky, as they ‘raise their weary waings against the rain’ and fly in tandem that bit further. This is a clever song, a couple used as symbolism for a century that masure things in different ways to thir ancestors and are paying for the consequences, always searching for evidence of what they don’t really want to see and forever finding it. The rigid backing track, meanwhile, is the perfect no-nonsense setting for this lyric, the most ‘conventional’ on the album as we move swiftly from one section to anothdr. Some interesting instrumentation makes this song stand out as a recording too, including a chakeire (that’s a shaker full of beads to you and me), a water bowl (!), plus several drums, trumpets and saxophones. Listen out too for the lyrical return of ‘a loathsome’ [188] (My Little) Town in the first verse, hinting at the universal lack of opportunities the world over seeing as Paul has already covered this subject in an American context.

So far the whole album has been strong but arguably [300] Further To Fly is the peak, uniting all this album’s themes as the album reaches a peak of desperation. A tale about carrying on despite misfortunes, this song was surely the last that Paul wrote for Carrie, ending with painful lines about finding ‘the strength to let you go’, However this is also the most surreal lyric on the album, a catalogue of images that bring the narrator down and cause him to lose hope with his future and the world. He feesl tired, ‘as a dream that wants to die’ and is ready to give up. But life is not ready to give him up: a new love is out there, so gently it’s barely noticed (and something you are meant to be oblivious to and slightly naughty, compared to a ‘pickpocket that brushes accidentally against your thigh’). A confused Paul isn’t sure if this new love is real, condemning ‘the open palm of desire that wants everything’ when he neds to tak things slowly and carefully. He ponders later whether these subtle signs from the universe were here at all and if they were real as he’s walking down the street in a strange place, the way he once did on [268] ‘You Can Call Me Al’. Instead of obvious signs like ‘angels in the architecture’ though he’s left to ponder what exactly he’s just seen. A vry oblique middle eight then contrasts this with the desperation of loss, with memories of babies being born and ‘waving bye bye’, all the fallouts that happen when love goes wrong. Suddenly it hits Paul all over again what is at stake and he cries out to Carrie that ‘they may come a time when I will lose you’, a line sung with such a haunted quality it’s amongst the best sung verses Paul ever gave us, kicking himself for his desperation to have everything from a partner – both strength and gentleness. The sudden influx of love is then put down to a ‘broken laugh, a broken fever’, something that suddenly seems reckless and not really a part of the narrator’s true self. The ‘rose of Jericho’, by the way, is a real plant that grows near the Dead Sea and has Biblical connotations thanks to its ability to only grow there. In context it sounds like a sign put there by Paul’s maker as a sign that this old love needs to make way for a new one, giving him strength to let someone near to him go. This lyric is perfectly matched by a manic backing track that even for this album is percussion heavy and intense, two sets of drums in two different speakers driving what would otherwise be a very slow and sleepy song onwards relentlessly. It suits the idea that the narrator is in a trance, moved on by fate in a way he wasn’t expecting and powerless to do anything to stem the tide. For once, Paul’s vocal-line seems to work in counterpoint to the drum’s insistent rhythms rather than complementing or emphasising it, with the singer’s effortless glide and despair at trying to reach his goals offset by the restless rhythms that try to distract the narrator from his path at every opportunity, as if he’s drowning in this unusual percussive world. Much of this song’s intriguing sound comes from the group Sidinho on congas and Michael Brecker’s akai ewi synthesiser’s other-worldly solo in the middle (a synth that you blow down which sounds like a flute, an instrument that has to be seen to be believed—try Paul Simon’s Concert In The Park video to see it with your own eyes). Paul will, for the record, marry singer-songwriter Edie Brickell in 1992, two years after the release of this album – it’s not on record when exactly they met – a figure who will dominate the rest of this book and whose influence may well start here. Perhaps the pinnacle of this album’s attempts to forge a completely new style for Paul Simon’s music, ‘Further To Fly’ is also the album’s biggest success, with its tune, lyrics and instrumentation all spot on in invoking a mood of difficulty and subdued panic.

 [301] She Moves On begins the second side on a surprisingly upbeat, optimistic note although ultimately the narrator’s good mood is short-lived. The tale of a romancer who is used to getting his way, he is pleased at making a pretty girl fall in love with him, only to come unstuck when she later rejects him and the lover finds he is hooked by her beauty, snared in his own trap. A typically well-crafted story song, Paul litters the track with some fascinating little details both lyrically and musically, from the imagery of the narrator’s ‘cold coffee eyes’ that used to be so warm to the ever-changing delicate backing harmonies and several different types of drums taking it in turns to vie for our attention. The scene shifts gradually verse by verse from him being in control as usual to bing out of his depth, full of subtle ‘signs’ that again come where the light falls, differently to where it used to, the spotlight gradually shifting off him and onto her. My guess is that there’s a little of Carrie Fisher in this song too, the ‘storybook lover’ whose power he underestimates – though Paul rarely spoke about her past thir early 1980s split when he did he referred to the fact that they seemed to be forver chasing each other and saying ‘goodbye’ until he finally realisd for definite that she was gone. This song appears to capture that moment and it results in a song full of panic, worried about being ‘abandoned and forsaken’, the narrator desperate to get her back but knowing in his heart of hearts that the path she was due to travel no longer synchornises with his.The hint is that he’s more than happy to settle for what she offers but she wants more, spinning ‘lik a top’ after the point when h has come to rest.Fittingly the backing track sounds as if it’s forevr in motion, with the repeated trick of lots of drumming in stero making the song feel like a giant relay race is going on between all the drummers. Over th top though the song itself is rather languid, ready to settle down and stop but forever being jolted out of its reverlrie. The sheer range of exotic instruments both Brazilian and English playing on this track must be near-unique (a sordu – a large bass Brazilian drum - a cowbell, a scraper, saxophones and a piccolo trumpet) but somehow they all sound in harmony here – although musically and lyrically this is pretty much the only track on this album that would sound just as good played on ‘normal’ pop and rock instruments. It’s Vincent Nguini’s insistent guitar licks and Armand Sabal-Lecco’s restless booming bass lines that are the stars on this track, however, mimicking the lover by sometimes jumping away from and sometimes playing in tandem with Paul.

[302] Born At The Right Time is obviously a song very close to Paul’s heart, seeing as it was used as the title of his huge 1991 tour and is one of the few Rhythms Of The Saints tracks to appear in many of his setlists and best-of compilations since the album came out. The song is also the most immediate from the album, dominated by tune rather than beat and with a big long sighing chorus that sounds like a warm hug on what is often quite a cold record (Warner Brothers really missed a trick making ‘Proof’ the scond album single over this one). Like many a ‘Saints’ song this one is about fate, but unlike the other album songs it offers up hope: at last internationally the storm clouds are lifting and maybe, at last, the children born into poverty around the world have a fair chance at success without being doomed to failure through warfare, economic climate or competition. Though on face value this is a song about only that there is the hint too that someone born right here and now, unremarked to the world except by the chiming of the local church, even though some extra-terrestrial or religious source seems to have had their lives all planned and mapped out for greatness from birth, fated to play a big role in the planet through being born at this particular moment when the world needs it. In many ways, though, it appears that any baby born anywhere has the divine potential to be the saviour of mankind, right up until the point where worldly demands start kicking in during their younger years, whatever the country of their birth, when the ability somehow gets lost in the scramble for survival, ‘scuffling out of fear’. Paul may though b specifically thinking of Brazil, watching so many babies on thir mother’s laps staring at him with big round eyes as he enters the country ‘an uninvited guest’. There’s a further ecological plea on overpopulation (‘The planet groans every tim it registers another birth’), but on a song about fate and pre-dstination it always sounded out of place somehow, a comment lft over from another draft perhaps. The story as delivered here too has overtones of Moses, a baby discovered in the reeds, with the poetic observation that his ‘eyes are clear as centuries’ (can a century be clear? I guesss future unwritten ones can be). The year 1990 (or potentially any year from 1987 onwards when the album was slowly being created) hasn’t given us an awful lot of time to see who this person may be yet, but equally maybe Paul has seen something we don’t know and the planet just hasn’t reached the point when they are most need yet?!? Surprisingly, this is Paul’s only song to study pre-destiny head-on, despite hinting at it in so many other songs and the subject matter is married to a delightful singalong chorus which fittingly sound like a heavenly choir who have planned all this from the get-go. A delightful marriage of the deeply spiritual and the gloriously commercial, a lot of work obviously went into this popular song – the drums were recorded in Brazil, some instrument overdubs were made later in New York and finally many of the vocals done in Paris, perhaps accounting for the song’s universal lyric about things being the same pretty much the world over!

[303] The Cool Cool River is by contrast a dark and edgy song where – right up until the end – mankind is on his own with no guiding hand to lead us on, victims of our own mistakes and restricting practices. This is too not a commercial song to fall in love with but one to fear, with its angry slashing riff and the relentless almost comical list of problems that Paul sings ducked further in th album mix than ever as if lost in the fog of sound around him. Another tale of how corrupt leaders have bowed to outside forces and desecrated beautiful countries for money, Paul’s vocal rises to a froth of indignation in the verses, recording what he sees around him in the lives of ordinary people: ‘anger and no one can heal it’ because of ‘the rage of love turned inward’ (worried about those they love and what will become of them). The only thing that brings any comfort are prayers and ‘the memory of God’, a memory because for many people feel as if their God has abandoned them. Instead of being blessed or baptised in the cool, cool river of nature mankind is distracted with petty problems of his own making, starting the song trapped in a metal box in a traffic jams (with a memorable opening about the anger spreading from car to car ‘like a lump’ that grows into something lethal). Mankind is trapped by his unnatural lifestyle, kowtowing to a boss they don’t respect, their biggest dreams not of saving the world and making it better but a pleasant journey home listening to the radio. When Paul sings about being ‘tuned to the voice of a star’ he mirrors the wishes of the religious from centuries past who dream of God out there somewhere, but no – in this universe it’s merely the sound of a celebrity. This pretty moment though offers some sort of hope as the song quietens down and blissfully switches to a more hopeful major key. After this false dawn and a comical verse recalling the fun alliteration of [263] ‘The Boy In The Bubble’ (Paul feels like a ‘mole in a motel, a slide in a slide projctor’ again an image of being moved on against his control and studied) we finally get that chorus back properly, the narrator having tuned into what he should have been listening to all along. Despite all that he has seen, despite his modern need for ‘proof’, somehow Paul still believes in deliverance somehow, somewhere (‘Maybe not in my lifetime but in yours’ he movingly tells the audience, ‘I feel sure’). As with so much of this album Paul sees signs in the world around him that things are going to change – and for the better. He imagines twilight barking, dogs sensing something changing in the outside world, singing songs to greet in the new world and in another line about light he sees lightning coming to roll the thunder clouds away (perhaps rally the mushroom clouds of the cold war?) Most of all though he sees the poor around the world rising up as one to demand better, driven by the ‘memory of God’ and ‘battered dreams’ they still send to a heaven that is now in their hands, ‘quiet as a sleeping army’ who don’t want to draw attention to themselves but know just how to fight. Like [152] ‘The Boxer’ en masse, they stand firm despite thir misery because they have nothing left to lose and they all feel much the same (‘Hard times, I’m used to that! My life is so common it disappears!’) The result has the cadence and patter of an uplifting speech, maybe one of Martin Luther King’s (‘I believe in the future…’), an attempt to stir the people. However out of nowhere Paul seems to suddenly realise that his job is to observe rather than comment and that he can’t convey this feeling into mere words and music and and in one of his most moving lines cries off trying to a feeling so intense he sees it everywhere (‘Sometims even music cannot substitute for tears!’) This is perhaps the most ambitious song on perhaps Paul’s most ambitious album and it really packs a punch in every department but one: the performance. For once the album’s writing style works against it, the players not yet knowing the full significance and anger of the song and merely improvising round the chords with a particularly weak ending. The concert renditions of this song, though are extraordinary, especially the 1991 ‘Central Park’ performance where instead of a quiet end Paul goes all big and adds a full minute’s worth of oompahing horns, the sound of so many people reaching out in the darkness, to overcome an obstacle or an enemy. It is, without exaggeration, one of the most fulfilling thrilling sounds you can ever hear and against all odds sometimes music really can substitute for tears.

After all that excitement, [304] Spirit Voices is a soothing, gentle tonic that – compared to the other complex songs here - never quite takes off. With the slowest tune on the album but a jagged and rather uncomfortable riff running through out and more nagging drums, its as if Paul is deliberately giving us a breathing space here between two of the more intense songs on the album. The lyrics of this track deal once more with the album theme of fate, Paul taking a holiday in a land where calling out to spirits is as natural and accepted as breathing. The people who call don’t quite know who they are calling to, but they have a pull all the same – in common with much of this album’s setting the light changes as a fire suddenly grows into being and flickers while the villagers dance. Paul takes a drink which numbs his hands and feet and gives him a sort of out of body experience where he imagines he hears them too – though what he actually hears in the context of the album is his last appearance alongside Ladysmith Black Mombazo, who get less to do than they ever did on ‘Graceland’. Their lines, as co-written by Milton Naciemtno whose poems were adapted into songs by Jefferson Airplane and is sung in Portugese of all languages, as translated into English read as a message from these potential Guardian Angels who are typically cryptic in their message: ‘Greetings! Excuse me, one moment. I remind you that tomorrow it will be all or it will be nothing. It depends, it will be brief or it will be great. It depends on the passion. It will be dirty or it will be a dream. Be careful heart. Do your best, heart. And have trust in the power of tomorrow’. Typically, Paul has his cake and eats it here: yes, spirit voices do exist, but what they have to tell us is that only we have the power to shape our destiny and it is up to us to solve our problems. Though Paul’s vision seems to him like an ‘earthquake’ that shakes his spiritual senses and his reaction to life, he’s struck also by how normal life continues despite this revelation, watching a spider finish a web he started building that morning. Realistic and spiritual, this song has a lot of ground to covr, but whether it’s the lack of drums, th sing-songy melody or the lack of any great peril in this track it never quite works as well as the other nine album songs, sadly, ‘Rhythm’s only weak link.

The album closes with [305] Rhythm Of The Saints itself, a song that works well as a rousing finale. The o multi-layered lyrics are so adventurous they even give up any form of ‘rhyming scheme’ at all, something that all but the most open-minded listener and critics will tell you is a cardinal rule in modern music – usually this is merely done for show but these words are also deeply moving. Recognising the hardship faced around the world whilst reminding us that we have the power to change our lives, this is a song that encourages us to overcome the obstacles in our way, to ‘dominate the impossible’ in our lives. It is another song about faith, this time though not in some God waiting to save us but simply the belief that our lives will get better. With the memorable hook that ‘to overcome an obstacle or an enemy, to dominate the impossible in our lives’, this album encourages us to reach into the darkness and face our fears anyway.  Paul begins the song asking to be blinded to his faults temporaily so he can get through a dark period that’s broken his spirit, imagining himself in future happier times ‘sailing in seizures of laughter’ and ‘crawling out from under the heel of love’. He sees himself daring to ask for favours from God when he hasn’t tried to sort his own life out first as being ‘like a beggar at your sleeve’ and namechecks Olodumare, one of three Gods as believed in by the Yoruba worshippers of Nigeria. This religion, perhaps learnt from Paul’s Graceland friends, believs wholeheartedly in mankind being the director of his fate and that we are all reincarnated until eventually we find our way to making life better for everybody, not just ourselves. Only then is mankind ready to visit the next realm of Gods who have ben waiting for us to learn this. You don’t miss the rhymes either as Paul’s sing-songy vocal makes the whole track sound like a self-help tape, telling us not to be held back by our own individual weaknesses, to go our own way if our heart disagrees with what the ‘crowd’ are doing and hinting that there will always be an unknown and untested part of our soul ready to give us the courage to fight on when we most need to. A second verse, though, is like much of this dual album concerned with more earthly matters: Paul is no longer a visitor to a tribe who all think like this but a lone American trying to pass on this new belief to a bunch of people who don’t get it or see its purpose in their lives. He remains a ‘stranger when strange isn’t fashionable’ and views the Western world through new eyes, ‘rich people waving at the door’, looking on and gawping without ever understanding. Dismissing their drugs and ‘passions’ as ‘lies’ he has now sen through, he imagines another Yoruba God (‘Babalu-Aye’) urging him to quit this life for a new one with likeminded souls who believe (in a line that nowadays sounds more like Brexit: ‘Leave if you want to, if you want to leave’). One of Paul’s most fascinating sets of lyrics, these work on several layers at once and is the obvious culmination of the work he was doing in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Paul of course didn’t leave his old world behind, but you can hear his curiosity wondering what exploring this culture might be like. Even for this album the recording of this track is edgy, full of mysterious chanting voices that come and go just out of earshot, competing guitars playing different lines that dance apart before clubbing together and intrinsic percussion that carries on playing in a delicious hypnotic trancelike whoop in the middle, even after everyone else has dropped out, the very real sound of spirit voices breaking through. This insistent rhythm guaranteed to get stuck in your head for days afterwards, in fact, at least until you turn the LP (or cassette or whatever) over and start from the beginning again. The only reason this song isn’t better known is the peculiar mix on this recording which seems to do its best to ignore the words altogether, although admittedly this does add to the track’s ghostly ambience. The track is accompanied by a fantastic collection of drum-sounds (by Uakti and Nana Vasconcelos this time) and an un-credited, presumably Brazilian, choir. Classy stuff.

 Overall, then, ‘Rhythm Of The Saints’ is quite an album that breaks so much new ground it practically re-shapes the musical map and it’s a great tragedy that other albums (especially Paul’s) didn’t follow more in this album’s footsteps (an Indian Paul Simon album, for instance, with their spirit voices and instruments could have been quite something, or even a Celtic album. Even though Paul says he’s retiring now, surely it’s not too late? Please?!?) This is an album that tries several new idas at once but instead of doing this as gimmicks needs them all to work. This high-falluting concept album about faith, humanity and religion would float away on a boring cloud of choirs and harps if it wasn’t for that fascinating primal groove that makes all of these songs dance and sing. Similarly a whole album of drums with nothing much to say would have become boring quickly to all but the biggest percussionist fans. This album, however, gets the mix perfectly between the physicallty real and materialistic with its hummable choruses on the one hand and the spiritual on the other, with this an album that wonders aloud what the real purpose of mankind’s short time on planet Earth is and whether we are ruled by luck, by fate or by our own hand. One criticism often levelled at this album when it came out was that it was a bit dull and – yes – the relative lack of melodic hooks and claustrophobic rhythms do make the songs sound very similar. But that’s only on first few hearings: over time you realise just how well crafted this record is, with its ear-catching backing tracks, cerebral music, hummable melodies and the sheer work that went into crafting this album with so much colour and power. Even in mucked up, dilutd sequencd form the tracks blend into each other so well, the lyrical ideas and themes are so characteristically crafted to catch our ears and imaginations and the song’s performances by perhaps the greatest band of musicians ever assembled for a Paul Simon record are so memorable that Rhythm Of The Saints reaches new, brave heights that even this well loved performer had never reached before. This should have been the start of a brave new beginning but, despite being a #1 record, this album sold so few copies compared to ‘Graceland’ that Paul was eager to move on to another project and never again tackled this album’s scope or sense of awe, beauty and intelligence. Though he abandoned this album’s working practice and cultural investigations soon after many of the themes, specifically religion and belief, do continue in his music and in many ways take over after this after being heard subtly. Perhaps Paul realised that, popular or not, he was just nevr going to match this album’s sheer brilliance as he truly excelled himself with this record, an apparently easy-going album that’s as deep as an ocean, just as beautiful and nothing like as polluted.


'The Paul Simon Songbook' (PS, 1965)

'Sounds Of Silence' (SG, 1966)

'Bridge Over Troubled Water' (SG, 1970)

'Paul Simon' (PS, 1972)

'There Goes Rhymin' Simon' (PS, 1973)

'Angel Clare' (AG, 1973)

'Watermark' (AG, 1977)

‘Scissors Cut’ (AG, 1981)

'The Animals' Christmas' (AG, 1986)

'Songs From The Capeman' (PS, 1997)

'Stranger To Stranger' (PS, 2016)

Every Pre-Fame Recording 1957-1963 (Tom and Jerry, Jerry Landis, Artie Garr, True Taylor, The Mystics, Tico and The Triumphs, Paul Kane)

Live/Compilation/Film Soundtrack Albums Part One: 1968-1988

Landmark Concerts and Key Cover Versions

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