Perhaps the best way to explain Caetano Veloso's importance in Brazilian culture is to describe him as the Bahian Paul Simon. Only a year younger than Simon, Veloso also made his reputation in the mid-'60s as a serious lyricist who could create pop hits. Like Simon, Veloso has a modest tenor (often overshadowed in duets by a higher, stronger voice), a wryly evocative writing style and an insatiable appetite for different musical styles. With his new album, "Livro," Veloso has crafted an album as literary, dreamy and seductive as 1972's "Paul Simon."

"Livro" is the Portuguese word for book, and on the title track, Veloso sings in his native language with a murmuring intimacy, "Books are transcendental things/ But we can love them with our hands/ The way we touch a pack of cigarettes." He then adds the unexpected joke, "Or fling them out the window/ And that may keep us from jumping out." The music begins with an insinuating melody but seems to collapse into modernist chaos halfway through before righting itself and returning to its sweet string chart and a rumbling percussion section.

The whole album swings back and forth in similar fashion -- between romantic love songs and acerbic critiques, between well-made pop and experimental discord, between soothing introspection and carnival bacchanalia. From these odd juxtapositions his lyrics draw their power to finger such paradoxes as inspiring/ oppressive Manhattan, strange/ familiar Rio de Janeiro and enslaving/liberating love.

Appearing Thursday at the Warner Theatre. To hear a free Sound Bite from Caetano Veloso, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8110. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

CAPTION: Caetano Veloso: serious pop flair.