The Rhythm of the Saints could very well be the greatest album of all time. Most consider it to be Paul Simon's last great record, although not very many people consider it his magnum opus. I would play devil's advocate to the sentiment. Don't get me wrong - Graceland has its merits and deserves all its glory and attention. But Saints has more tonal and emotional variety, complexity, higher highs and lower lows. It's more consistent from end to end, more energetic, it sticks to you where Graceland is a collection of songs, roughly half of them well above average. Perhaps they both benefit and suffer a little from the sentimentalization of their foreign influences, but where Graceland is a great collection of singles that tend to get stuck in your head, and is well worth anyone's time, it is comparatively shallow to this listener.
While Saints is sometimes seen as Simon's "Brazilian album," as a counterpart to Graceland, his "African album," Saints takes on many more cultural influences, some of them African. Bikutsi, for example, a type of West African music, deeply influenced the music of Saints. It's dance oriented music, focused on rapidly moving compound rhythms. These rhythms are a possible origin of the album's title, although not a very likely one, because the eponymous track is written in a typical duple metric 4/4. The Bikutsi influence is most pronounced in "Proof" and "The Cool, Cool River." This is also Simon's first collaboration with West African guitarist Vincent Nguini, who arranged horns on "Proof" and performed and arranged guitar for roughly half the album, including "Spirit Voices," an arrangement based on a vernacular Ghanian folk song.
Saints has its fair share of North American Blues, Jazz, and Art Rock influences as well. Afro-cuban musicians and influences have a voice on the record, and shine through most conspicuously on "The Coast" and "Born at the Right Time." Simon also has no intentions, and possibly no ability, of fully separating himself from his American Folk origins which made him so famous in the 1960s and early 1970s as one half of Simon and Garfunkel.
But with all that being accounted for, the album's dominating inspiration is definitely Brazilian. Half the album was recorded in Rio between two studios in the city (the other half mostly by Simon alone in New York City, and parts of two songs in Paris). The album covers an impressive palette of Brazilian talent, not the least of which being Grupo Cultural OLODUM, the popular Salvadorian (the Bahian city in Brazil, not to be confused with El Salvador or San Salvador) samba reggae group who contributed its riveting live percussion track to "The Obvious Child." Brazilian instrumental group Uakti performs percussion on three songs, not the least of which being the dark, liquidy mallet instrumentation on "Can't Run But." Other Brazilian musicians Milton Nascimento, Naná Vasconcelos, Mingo Araújo, Remy Kabocka, Dom Chacal, and Rafael Rabello also perform on the album.
More than anything, beyond any novelty we might appropriate or misappropriate for its foreign-ness, Saints is Simon's best lyrical and musical example of emotional range, and his understanding of the human spirit. From the dark and existential black widow encomia "She Moves On" to the politically frustrated "Can't Run But" to the make-the-most-of-it-together bittersweet "The Coast" or the peace and uninhibitedly joyful "Born at the Right Time" or the strange combination of all or most of these feelings in the epic and climactic "The Cool Cool River," Saints has a replay value and re-commitment value that can't be touched by anything else in Simon's discography, or most anyone else's. It's the best representation of collage and World Music awareness that American Pop music has to offer, and nothing short of a true masterpiece from probably the most confused white guy in the world.
The Rhythm of the Saints, released October 16, 1990 in North America, Warner Brothers Records, produced by Paul Simon.
01. The Obvious Child
02. Can't Run But
03. The Coast
05. Further to Fly
06. She Moves On
07. Born at the Right Time
08. The Cool, Cool River
09. Spirit Voices
10. The Rhythm of the Saints
The 2004 remaster includes an outtake, "Thelma," as well as alternate and early versions of "Born at the Right Time," "The Coast," and "Spirit Voices." I would recommend the remaster, but not for the bonus tracks. There is, however, a pretty good live version of "The Coast" on Simon's compilation album "On My Way, Don't Know Where I'm Goin'."
I'll admit, I read some Wikipedia for small details in this WU. Also the liner notes to the album.