CK Retro Review: The Rhythm Of The Saints by Paul Simon

After the overwhelming commercial and critical triumph of Graceland, Paul Simon doubled down on the follow-up, 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints. Once he again he enlisted foreign sounds to enliven his songs, only this time he broadened his scope even further to include a wide swath of South American musicians. I have a feeling that the end result is one of Simon’s most polarizing albums and I’m probably on the South end of that pole, since I consider it to be an album, for the most part, that’s easier to admire than enjoy. Here is a song-by-song review:


10. “The Rhythm Of The Saints”- New Age lyrics, no real melodic momentum, and an impenetrable production. As an album-closer, it doesn’t exactly leave you wanting more.

9. “The Cool, Cool River”- The quieter moments are actually quite lovely and the punch of the horns is a bit of pick-me-up toward the end of the song. Yet the feeling I get is of three disparate songs being jammed together. Simon’s lyrics have the same kind of schizophrenic quality, vague portents of doom interspersed with villainous images, counteracted by optimism for the future. All of the complexity and ambition feels like an end here rather than the means.


8. “The Coast”- This one ambles along nicely enough, although it could have stood a hook or two. For me, the main problem here is again with Paul’s lyrics, which veer off in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion and never cohere into anything tangible. Still, the musicianship is diverting enough that you can overlook it most of the way.

7. “Spirit Voices”- Feels a little like a Sting song, doesn’t it? That’s not a bad thing, I guess, but it’s hard to find Simon in a lot of these songs, almost like he’s a guest player on his own album. The back-and-forth with Milton Nascimento at song’s gives this one a little needed oomph.

6. “Proof”- It has a memorable, horn-drenched chorus. Plus, whereas all of the songs on The Rhythm Of The Saints have intricate rhythms, this one feels like it has a little bit of a groove as well. Simon’s sense of humor, also largely absent in this collection of songs, briefly pops up here. Pep and fun goes a long way.

5. “Further To Fly”- This meditative number pits Simon’s musings on life’s meaning against a typically knotty web of percussion. There is some disconnect going on between the lonely vocal and the all the congas and bongos, but that may have been the desired effect. It also boasts one of the stronger sets of lyrics on the disc, a series of nagging doubts and sober observations, problems that the “Great Deceiver” can’t solve. Yet a collective yearning for a better outcome never ceases, even when all evidence points to the contrary.

4. “Can’t Run But”- If you’re looking for The Rhythm Of The Saints in microcosm, look no further. On the one hand, the percussion is simply mesmerizing. Seriously, I could listen to that alone on a loop, a week would pass, and I’d be none the wiser. Yet the song itself is more impressive than affecting. The lyrics lurch from ecological concerns to a random dream to a complaint about the music business. As a matter of fact, Simon seems to be a superfluous part of the equation. But, again, that percussion: Wow.


3. “She Moves On”- This is more like it. First of all, the arrangement is solid, with the guitars of Ray Phiri and Vincent Nguini providing a nice counterpoint to the exotic percussion. The short punchy lyrical lines provide a vocal hook that works in tandem with the rhythmic thrust. In addition, those lyrics have a focus about them that is refreshing after all of the abstract stuff elsewhere on the disc, and they feature some really cool phrases, my favorite being “cold coffee eyes.” Even though the elusive girl who bewitches the guy is an oft-used song topic, the exotic touches make it feel new.

2. “The Obvious Child”- I went back and forth on this one between four and five stars. Those drums by Group Cultural Olodum are thrilling, propelling the entire song into the stratosphere. Simon’s tune, even when it shifts shape, always has drama and urgency. The song would have been a five-star choice had it elaborated on the tale of Sonny, because the verse describing his perusal of his high school yearbook is effortlessly moving. The focus wavers a bit though with some free association lyrics (“The cross is in the ballpark?”) which distract more than enhance. It’s nitpicking, I know, but I call ‘em like I hear ‘em.


1.“Born At The Right Time”- There’s that old adage that says that a song that’s truly great should be great in its simplest form. The acoustic demo of Simon alone with acoustic guitar that’s included on the extended version of this album is utterly charming, so that big hurdle is easily cleared. The accents added here are just right, from the hip-shifting percussion to the nimble guitar work of J.J. Cale, Vincent Nguini, and Simon, to the lovely backing vocals. Yet it all goes back to that original song, one of the sweetest in Paul’s oeuvre. He cataloged a lot of ills on the rest of the album, yet here he captures that moment when everything is possible, before the world gets a chance to screw it up. Beguilingly simple and poignant enough to mist up your eyes, “Born At The Right Time” is the bell cow for this accomplished yet elusive album.

(E-mail me at or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For books and e-books based on material that originated on this site, check out the links below. Online reviews of those works would be greatly appreciated.)



3 Comments on “CK Retro Review: The Rhythm Of The Saints by Paul Simon”

  1. Baggy says:

    Hi CK, I may have cavilled occasionally along the way, but I think you have completely nailed the strengths and weaknesses of this album. I agree more or less with your list of the tracks and their rankings, for me i’d give She Moves On and The Obvious Child 5 stars, and rank them above Born at the Right Time, if only just.

    But the issues with ROTS are at the other end of the list. There is an underlying problem for me which is the sequencing of the album. I still think in terms of LP sides, and all of the last three tracks sit towards the bottom of your list, making a very weak side 2. Even worse, these last 3 songs are too similar, the tempos broadly the same, the instrumentation the same or similar, and the random, casually allusive lyrics, which can work so well, don’t help distinguish one song from the other. Despite the fact that I am a huge PS fan, believe me PS is my man, I’d struggle to sing or even explain these last three songs to a non-fan in any way which would make them sound different.

    There is an alternative, “original”, track listing for ROTS which I think does the album more favours. Go back to Graceland and you see brilliant sequencing throughout, something we know the boys worked hard on throughout their S&G career.

    • countdownkid says:

      Baggy, I agree with you totally on the sequencing. I actually had, in my notes, a comment about the songs sounding toward the end blending into one another. Judging from some of the comments on the Paul Simon site, some people are going to be upset by some of these rankings. But I think there are also a fair amount of people who feel the way we do. Coming after Graceland, the knee-jerk reaction by Rolling Stone and all the other critics was to fawn all over this album. But the evidence doesn’t support those raves. Like I said, it’s always well-played and daringly complex, but there is a bit of a hole in the center.

      • Baggy says:

        Looking forward to your reviews of the next series of PS albums CK, i suspect they will seriously divide the punters; in particular as Paul’s later works, i don’t think there is anything that could be called a critical consensus which has developed around them. I feel they are all good albums, but they do all tend to have quite a divergence between the stronger and weaker tracks. And, as with ROTS, there tend to be sequencing issues imho with at least a couple of them.

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