Published: Monday, Nov. 12 1990 12:00 a.m. MST

Because Grammy-winning "Graceland" was such an artistic, cross-cultural and commercial success, Paul Simon's new album, "The Rhythm of the Saints," is getting extensive media attention, and not a little critical scrutiny. So we may as well join in.

Simon, who has a penchant for penning songs about life's dilemmas, big and little, has given us a good one: Is he brave or crazy, creatively visionary or self-destructively out of sync? His globe-trotting search for our musical "roots," which led him to South Africa for his last album, took him to Brazil and West Africa this time. And "The Rhythm of the Saints" (to take a line from the new collection) is not "the obvious child" of "Graceland." Those expecting a sequel cut from the same cloth will be sorely disappointed. This is another exotic weave altogether.From start fo finish, "Rhythm" is dominated by the beat of Brazilian percussion - congas, bongos, gourds, castanets, whole drum corps, booming at times, then lulling and chamois soft. The cumulative hypnotic effect is certain to enchant some listeners. Others will be drawn, as always, to Simon's lyrics, for he's as observant, wry and intimate-yet-cerebral as ever.

But the great record-buying majority in the middle, fans who may be irritated by an alien rhythm or unwilling to dive into the lyrics, won't find "The Rhythm of the Saints" as gently melodic or as broadly accessible as "Graceland."

Which is too bad. For "The Rhythm of the Saints" has a lot to offer - and requires multiple listenings, definitely more than a cursory first spin, to appreciate.

The album's leadoff cut and first single, "The Obvious Child," is a good representative of the collection as a whole. The drums of the Grupo Cultural Olodum immediately catch and hold your attention. Then Simon's guitar and voice come in and he begins a tale told by an aging father about his own life and the birth and life of his boy, Sonny.

"Can't Run But," with guitar by J.J. Cale and all manner of Brazilian percussives and chimes, verges on the avant garde, while the pan-Atlantic and pan-Caribbean "Born at the Right Time" and "The Coast," about a family of wandering musicians and "the injured coast" they have seen, are about as close to the "Graceland" style as can be found here, combining American sessionmen, Brazilian musicians and background vocals by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and others. "The Cool, Cool River" harkens to an even earlier, thoughtful-jazzy '70s Simon style.

Gently Latin songs like "Proof" and "Further to Fly," like most others on "The Rhythm of the Saints," take an elliptical course in telling their stories. Simon isn't a linear songwriter at all anymore. He sets up vague scenes, gives us bits and pieces, creates musical mosaics devised from dialogue and descriptions, word play and observations ("Faith is an island in the setting sun/But proof, yes/Proof is the bottom line for everyone"), served up in arrangements featuring diverse musical styles and influences. Somehow this approach works.

"Spirit Voices," with partial Portugese lyrics and singing by Milton Nascimento, takes us on a jungle journey to a tribal village, while the album's floating title song is almost a prayer.

At other times, as with "She Moves On," you wonder how lines from an American diary sung by a man with a mild New York accent ended up in a song flavored by Rio de Janeiro.

But all in all, the album's a fascinating musical creation - and a daring one. Paul Simon is again challenging us to broaden our definition of popular music. "The Rhythm of the Saints" lays out his latest argument - and a pretty good one it is.

BETTE MIDLER; "Some People's Lives" (Atlantic); produced by Arif Mardin. * * *

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