The culture industry seems to leave no anniversary uncommemorated in its relentless search for nostalgia to mine. Happy 35th anniversary, Airplane! Happy 15th birthday, Bring It On! We celebrate the anniversaries of bad things we love anyway and bad things we certainly do not. Wait, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm is 25 already? How did we ever get so old???
But today I’m celebrating a different anniversary—one that doesn’t make me feel old, or look back laughingly on an earlier era of culture. Because the record I’m celebrating today is timeless: It sounds even better now than it did 25 years ago. It’s ripened in my estimation from a good follow-up to a beloved masterpiece to a minor-key masterpiece of its own. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the best album by its accomplished creator. It’s Paul Simon’s The Rhythm of the Saints, which landed in record stores on Oct. 16, 1990.
Rhythm was Simon’s followup to 1986’s Graceland, which revived Simon’s career, sold six million copies worldwide, won 10 million Grammys, and got American parents and kids dancing together to South African Mbaqanga and Township Jive filtered through Simon’s winsome sensibility. (Well, with the addition of a Los Lobos song, according to the Lobos’ Steve Berlin.) Rhythm, which incorporated west African and Brazilian musicians alongside the South African sounds of Graceland, wasn’t a failure by any stretch of the imagination; it sold two million copies and was nominated for two Grammys. But it never yielded a true hit single, and remains underappreciated, I fear, by listeners who felt puzzled by the record’s elliptical lyrics and understated rhythms.
If you know a song from The Rhythm of the Saints, it’s “The Obvious Child,” the one with the joyous drums recorded live in Salvador, Brazil. That track kicks off the record, and it’s an anomaly; most of the rest of the songs on The Rhythm of the Saints move at a soft shuffle, bongos and conga drums bouncing around deep in the track, while Cameroonian guitarist Vincent Nguini—who’s been a member of Simon’s band since recording the album—crafts beautiful, melodic lines over the top. Simon’s singing is even more subdued than usual; he sings of “the lonely life,” with “sorrow everywhere you turn”; “the planet groans every time it registers another birth,” he reminds us. In “Further to Fly,” he bemoans “the open palm of desire,” which “wants everything, wants everything, wants everything.”
But there’s joy and hope hidden in the music, too, as songs brighten into momentary horn-powered interludes. “I believe in the future,” he sings in “The Cool, Cool River”: “We shall suffer no more. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours.”
Maybe the reason I love the album so much is not that it doesn’t make me feel old, but that it makes me feel like growing old has a purpose. As both The Rhythm of the Saints and I have aged, I’ve learned to appreciate the album’s quiet charms in a way I couldn’t as a teenager. Back then I wished all the songs were like “The Obvious Child,” or, more accurately, wished they were all like the songs on Graceland. Now the songs on Graceland, while still exuberant and enjoyable, feel to me tied very closely to the 1980s, while songs like “Spirit Voices” and “The Coast” feel timeless—messages delivered from some ancient or future place, reminders of beauty and peace amid the tumult of modern life.
So celebrate The Rhythm of the Saints, Paul Simon’s best album—or at least the one that most rewards relistening decades later. Tonight, as dusk falls and the air turns crisp, make yourself a caipirinha and settle in with some good headphones. Listen to the drums in the distance. Feel it in the creases and the shadows. Reach in the darkness.