Kate Mossman on The Rhythm of the Saints by Paul Simon: “A kind of musical synaesthesia”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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When I was ten, we entered a raffle at an ice rink and won a holiday to the south of France. The holiday was actually a week in a four-berth caravan, and transport to France was not included, but it was the most exciting thing that had happened to the family. The mountains of the Esterel Massif were red volcanos. The trees were black with spontaneous fires. The hot air vibrated in a permanent mirage and our clothes dried within seconds of throwing ourselves into the springs of the national park. For that week, and the three-day drives on either side of it, we had one soundtrack: the album Paul Simon made after Graceland.

This was Simon’s Latin American project. It features around 100 musicians, from Puerto Rico to Brazil. It went multi- platinum in the UK but it had no hit singles. He once played it to nearly a million people in Central Park, but critics rarely talk about it now.

The scale and ambition of the record slip by unnoticed, because Rhythm of the Saints just floats. Simon started with the drums – whole battalions of them, recorded live on the streets of Salvador – and built everything else on top. It’s got the highest concentration of exquisite melodies I’ve ever heard in one work of music. And it teems with lines of irridescent poetry. Lime-green lizards scuttle down cabin walls. “Song dogs” bark at the break of dawn:

Lightning pushes the edge of a thunder storm.
And these streets,
Quiet as a sleeping army,
Send their battered dreams to heaven

Listening is a tropical experience, but locations are scattered: a little harbour church in St Celia, a river as wide as the sea. Liberated from the political charge of Graceland, the album focuses on the passionate realities of human experience. Simon catches the contradictions of middle age – anxiety versus don’t-give-a-damn confidence; irritation versus the broader sense of beauty that getting older allows. He looks at marriage with tender ambivalence (“Sometimes I see your face/As if through reading glasses”) and at old age with fear (“A recent loss of memory/A shadow in the family, the baby waves bye bye”). Lines like these made me sad as a child, but they made me intrigued about the future, too.

Rhythm of The Saints is a multi-sensory experience, a kind of musical synaesthesia. It actually sounds hot. It will forever be associated, for me, with the trip to that strange burning French moonscape: we were listening to the euphoric “Proof” when we cleared a mountain bend and got caught in a herd of wild boar; to us children, their snouts became the horn section.

Simon’s vivid but self-conscious focus upon beauty, and upon the moment, was something I later found in the poetry of Caribbean writer Derek Walcott. Reading up on Rhythm Of The Saints for this piece, I realised that Walcott inspired the whole album. Simon would sing his poetry over tracks when he hadn’t finished his own lyrics. Here were two difficult artists whose work was the easiest outlet for expressions of love or light. They did a musical together once – The Capeman – and it bombed.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special