Rhythms of the world are hardly new to Paul Simon, who appropriated an Andean folk ballad for "El Condor Pasa" and the loping gait of reggae for "Mother and Child Reunion," two of his biggest hits. Then came "Graceland," Simon's album-long embrace of South Africa's lilting township jive music. Though radio barely played it, that 1986 album was a critical and commercial success that helped boost the idea of world beat (not to mention Simon's stock in the pop marketplace after a series of disappointing solo albums). So it's hardly surprising that Simon has returned to the wellspring on "The Rhythm of the Saints" , which he finds in the African-derived music of Brazil, though a lot less hermetically than fellow traveler David Byrne did on his recent album.
As he did on "Graceland," Simon has grafted his lyrics onto tracks recorded in New York, Brazil and France -- meter in the service of rhythm. The fusion is less compelling than on "Graceland," which had the double benefit of being not only fresh but lively, thanks to the exuberant contributions of guitarist Ray Phiri and his band Stimela, and the zesty Zulu chorales of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Both appear on "Saints," as do a number of African and American musicians and a lot of Brazilians, but the results seem more muted.
While almost every cut kicks off with some sort of percussive energy and is fueled by intriguing rhythms, the focus is squarely on what Simon sings. It's as if his always-personal lyrics must coexist with traditionally public music, meeting at the corner of heart and craft (and Simon's songs are always well crafted). When things meld, as on the title cut and "The Obvious Child," the results are intriguing. Elsewhere, they seem precious and labored. Simon travels along these rhythm tracks comfortably but not always convincingly -- sometimes he's first class, sometimes he's tourist.
"The Obvious Child" begins with the melodically martial drums of Grupo Cultural Olodum (recorded live in Pelourinho Square in Salvador, the capital of Bahia). Other instruments are layered on, like colors on a canvas, but it's the drums that drive and define the song. This may explain why "The Obvious Child," which seems to be about aging and dreams deferred, provokes Simon's most impassioned vocals. "Can't Run But" is a mallet-driven contemplation featuring the Brazilian percussion ensemble Uakti (seek out its PolyGram album of a few years back), while "The Coast" and "Proof," both of which deal with aspects of love, offer faint echoes of "Graceland's" lilting jive. The somber "Further to Fly" seems like a more resigned "Slipslidin' Away," with Simon's yearning vocals approaching confession.
The album's last five songs seem a bit more placid, with none jumping out, though individual lines do (as they do throughout Simon's songbook). His approach may be formal, as dictated by the process he's opted for, but his poetic license is apparently still valid. As on "Graceland," the writing seems less neurotic, more compassionate, its humanism palpable on songs such as "Born at the Right Time," "Spirit Voices" and "The Cool, Cool Rover" (this last song with "& Garfunkel"-era echoes in its chorus).
As ever, Simon's voice is sweet and direct, floating above the songs rather than driving them. There are some guest stars around, but outside of Milton Nascimento's ethereal verse on "Spirit Voices," they hardly register. That's not the case with Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini and bassist Armand Sabal-Lecco, who weave swirling rhythms and brittle melodic sensibilities with supple grace. They provide the energy and abandon that balance Simon's internalized passion. He looks to be wedding West African form with Brazilian undercurrents and Simon-style overlays, but succeeds only occasionally. At least he's taking the risk.