Today I'd like to share with you a defining album of my musical history: Paul Simon's "The Rhythm Of The Saints". Released on October 16th, 1990 "The Rhythm Of The Saints" is the eighth solo studio album by American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Comprised of mainly Latin American and Brazilian musicians, including the incredible percussion group Olodum, Paul Simon crafted, in my opinion, a venerable masterpiece of world and pop music. Whether it be the familiar or exotic, Simon brings a wonderful marriage of beautiful heart-tugging songwriting with deep musical adventure. For me, this album was indeed a vital beginning of a love for world music and all things syncopated.
My first memories of "The Rhythm Of The Saints" would be in my family's kitchen where my father would play this album over and over while making us meals. It was literally the soundtrack of us coming together. My father being a trumpet player was drawn to the huge horn sections and pulsating rhythms. It was intoxicating for my young musical mind, soaking up anything exotic and rare. If it wasn't enough to have these rare sounds and tempos I'd never heard before at the time --- but to also have the sweet, soft and friendly timber of Simon's voice and style of songwriting available at every inch of nostalgia --- I was hooked.
The opener, The Obvious Child with it's enormous war cry of a percussion section (provided by Olodum) has this sort of handshake with Western and World music. It pulls you right into Simon's journey into the familiar and exotic. It's almost like a taste tester for the adventure you're about to embark on. That, and the incredible songwriting of Simon that always has this yearning quality to it's choices; It's movement grows with you as you press on. With so many parallels in the experience for me: The window into the story of a young man's growth in the song, my growth as a young man listening to the track back in 1990, and of course the growth in the song itself - how it busts wide open with the melodic hook at the end... it's hard to compete with that kind of completion. It's yin/yang and everything in between.
Songs like Can't Run But and Proof really showcase the rhythmic potential (no pun intended!) of the album and the reach of the production by Simon and his border-less band. There are some deep grooves here, syncopated and rich, almost as if they surround and float above you. Can't Run But, being part allegory and part literalism, is an impressionistic tale of the Chernobyl Incident and the rigors of navigating the then-current music industry. Proof is an extremely strong and buoyant track chock full of spicy rhythmic syncopation. Some of the best clean guitar tones are had on this album and Proof is a shining example. Tightly plucked and muted melodic lines flow throughout the length of the track, pushing and pulling the feel. Proof is one of my favorite songs on the album, as it taught me to feel the "in-between" in a song. I would listen to the different musical instruments playing what seemed to be completely different things, but when put together they made this majestic wide spectrum of sound I hadn't heard before. I would sit for hours and just take in that feel, let it sink in until I could start feeling the rhythms in the space. It's a technique that I consistently use as a musician, and I'm forever grateful for it; It could, in fact, be the lesson that is responsible for my adaptable sense of time and feel.
Further to Fly and The Cool, Cool River are two examples of the type of meditative flow that Simon achieves on "The Rhythm Of The Saints". There's this beautiful circular element to the structure of the song, the instruments and the production. It lends this otherworldly feel that if you let the music take you there, you'll find yourself in a familiar contemplative space. These two tracks really open up that space for me, with the jazz influenced slow ebb and flow of Further to Fly with a mysterious rhythm that chases you as you attempt to chase it, to the percussive heart beat of The Cool, Cool River. There's something that Simon does a fair amount that's really showcased here on The Cool, Cool River. It's this pulling away from the time of the song, ripping away any percussion or drums, that just lets a sort of free-time flow with an incredibly nostalgic melodic moment. Each chorus yields this beautiful technique of pulling away the time, allowing the listener to have this feeling --- ultimately leading up to a stampede of a horn section nearing the end of the track, bringing us into a new light. The Cool, Cool River returns to it's original form almost as if how a stream would flow into a river, once again part of something larger than itself.
I'll leave you with my favorite excerpt (though written in 1990, seems contemporary in every way) from The Cool, Cool River:
And I believe in the future
We shall suffer no more
Maybe not in my lifetime
But in yours, I feel sure
Song dogs barking at the break of dawn
Lightning pushes the edges of a thunderstorm
And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven, to heaven
For the mother’s restless son
Who is a witness to, who is a warrior
Who denies his urge to break and run
Who says, “Hard times?
I’m used to them
The speeding planet burns
I’m used to that
My life’s so common it disappears”
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears