Paul Simon's underappreciated followup to Graceland
by Amanda Rodgers
It’s no secret that Paul Simon was interested in world music. He was experimenting with it as far back as “El Condor Pasa” on Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970, continuing with “Mother and Child Reunion” and “Late in the Evening,” and eventually leading to his classic Graceland, a surprising mix of South African music, accompanied by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and zydeco music out of New Orleans.
Now, I’m not going to try to give you any hot takes about Graceland. It’s a spectacular album and it’s one that I think every music lover should own, whether you’re a Paul Simon fan or not. It has “You Can Call Me Al,” for one thing, and that is nowhere near the best song on the album. (That would be either “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” or “Under African Skies” for me, but I am open to discussion on this point.)
It didn’t end there, though. The followup album, The Rhythm of the Saints, is nowhere near as well known, but it’s very nearly as good in its own way. Simon headed down to Brazil for this one and teamed up with Salvador band Grupo Cultural Olodum, whose drums define the sound of the album.
It starts off with “The Obvious Child,” an absolute knockout. Those drums come stomping in right away to let you know you’re in for a thumping good time, and the rest of the song doesn’t disappoint. It’s a thoughtful meditation on aging with Paul Simon’s typically poetic lyrics and driving, intricate percussion throughout.
The rest of the album is much more subtle, and I have to admit it’s kind of a slow burn. It took me years to fully appreciate it. It’s full of smooth, slinky melodies that don’t show off, but somehow manage to stick in your head anyway. The distinctive Olodum drums and Brazilian-style guitar shine on every track, a lovely and unusual (in North America, anyway) sound that gives the album a lovely shimmer, even on the darker tracks. It’s the drums that really make the album, if you ask me. Drums are very important to me, and I love this South American style. It’s elaborate and stylish, but not busy, and it always enhances the song rather than distracting the listener.
Those dark songs, like “Further to Fly” and “The Cool, Cool River,” are possibly the most immediately interesting ones besides “The Obvious Child.” But even though most of the album is relatively inaccessible, stick with it. There are lovely melodies here, although you have to pay close attention to catch them on “Can’t Run But” and “She Moves On” (one of Simon’s many songs about Carrie Fisher). It’s a bit more obvious on the sweet, gentle “Born at the Right Time” and the lively “Proof.” But every single song on this album has something to offer, even if you have to dig a little bit to find it. It’s worth the effort, I promise.
The Rhythm of the Saints might not be as showy or as immediately catchy as Graceland, and I’m not going to try to tell you that it’s better. But it is just as interesting if you take the time to listen below the surface, and it’s a major change of pace from Simon’s earlier albums. There is not a hint of his early style on, say, “Still Crazy After All These Years” here. If, like me, you’ve played There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Hearts and Bones so many times you can sing every note from memory, give this one a spin. It’s Paul Simon like you’ve never heard him before, and never would again in quite the same way. The Rhythm of the Saints is unique, special, and very much worth your time.