Paul Simon's previous album, Graceland, was a record so unexpected, so luminous, and so unassumingly profound that it set standards even Simon himself might never again have met. Now, after a four-year absence, he's returned with even richer music. At first the new album, The Rhythm of the Saints, seems less spontaneous than Graceland, but after repeated hearings it turns out to probe even deeper. It's lovely enough and subtle enough almost to make a listener ache.
Each new cut comes as a surprise. The first song, ''The Obvious Child,'' begins with confident drums that resound with special exuberant zing because they were recorded outdoors in a resonant city square in Salvador, Brazil. Then, at the start of the second song, ''Can't Run But,'' there's a change of emotional weather; the drumming yields to a nervous patter of marimba and percussion. Later tracks are suffused with the liquid melody of African guitar or explode with bursts of soul-music horns, vividly etched against a prancing African beat. One buoyant song, ''Proof,'' also has an introspective side, and dissolves into an interlude so high and timid it seems barely able to stand on its own. Yet somehow it does.
Simon's voice, meanwhile, floats over everything, sounding both calm and earnest, eager and detached. It's the voice of a man who endures the workaday world of achievement and suffering but longs in his heart for perfect peace. The album's simplest song,''Born at the Right Time,'' breathes the air of that peace, as Simon imagines the birth of a savior, a child so pure that he or she (Simon offers both possibilities) has ''never been lonely'' and ''never been lied to.'' Later, in ''The Cool, Cool River,'' he glimpses peace through a veil of distress, as over a dark shuffle of bass and guitar he imagines a future in which there's no pain. Midway through he sings of the battered dreams of humanity rising to heaven, and all at once horns tear at the music with a ferocity both unexpected and bitterly intense.
This is Simon's 7th studio album (his 13th, if you count the ones he made with Art Garfunkel). His latest music is by far his most vital. Considering how good his earlier albums are, that's an extraordinary achievement, and it might be because he's reached beyond pop for his inspiration. He made Graceland with African musicians; in this new album he drew on traditions both African and Brazilian. By using non-Western music, he taps into one of contemporary history's bigger seismic shifts: The dominance of Western culture is coming to an end and the rest of the world's cultures are growing stronger. In effect, he's riding a wave bigger than himself, bigger than the pop charts, and in fact bigger than all of us. He's helping to point the way to a bright, multicultural future and, in doing so, making albums that easily rank with work by classical composers like Aaron Copland and jazz greats like John Coltrane as the most powerful American music ever created. A+