POP MUSIC SPECIAL : PAUL SIMON "The Rhythm of the Saints" Warner Bros.

It's still a little hard to get used to the idea of Paul Simon music as beat music, but that's exactly what "Saints" is--his usual elliptical reveries and sad-mouthed regrets having been built this time from the ground up on a rock bottom of complex Brazilian rhythms. And they do kick.

The very first song, "The Obvious Child," opens with a bold, cadence-like phalanx of drums, and though the meters get smoother and quieter over the course of the album, they never really let up. It's driving stuff that just might make you get up and dance.

Or lay down and nap. Because at the same time the album carries a distinctly dream-like quality--thanks not only to Simon writing his most impressionistic, least linear batch of songs to date, but to the languid quality of its melodic sense that offsets the busyness of the rhythm quite beautifully.

Though it obviously shares many qualities with its four-year-old predecessor, "Graceland"--including some of the same South African elements alongside new West African and Brazilian ones--this album may be harder for the public to get a handle on. Celebrative musical strains on the level of "You Can Call Me Al" are far fewer on this gentler, spookier effort.

The increased dillution between different geographic locales parallels the increased dillution of Simon's lyricism. You get the sense that this charming but emotionally elusive character welcomes all this ethnomusicology in part as something else to hide behind. Some of these songs--burdened with incidents and details, but rarely declarations--are textbook examples of how to write about being lonely without saying anything so obvious, or brave.

If Simon is hiding, though, he's doing it brilliantly. After this equally engaging followup, "Graceland" seems less like an experiment and more like the beginnings of a new language that combines several old or even ancient ones--the village spirit dance, the West Village folk Angst. And if he requires a Brazilian drum corps to provide some of the expressiveness his lyrics mask, all the better for us.

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