Simon & Garfunkel
The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-1970 (Legacy)
by Brian Varney
Simon & Garfunkel. The crap my parents used to listen to, authors of a handful of terrific songs, and predecessors to the multi-decade period of sustained lameness known as Paul Simon’s solo career. Most of my experience with this stuff having been secondhand exposure via my parents’ stereo or the radio, these reissues seemed a good opportunity to check out the songs I already knew in their intended context, the ’60s having been the heyday of the “album as art” period.
So, the albums then. When Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were teenagers, they sang and played as Tom and Jerry and even had a minor hit called “Hey Schoolgirl.” Splitting and reforming in the wake of the NYC folk scene, 1964 saw the release of their debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, an otherwise unremarkable folk album whose main claim to fame is containing the original, undubbed version of “The Sound of Silence.”
The album flopped and the duo split. The album lay forgotten until producer Tom Wilson, seeking to capitalize on the folk-rock phenomenon, dubbed drums and electric guitar onto “The Sound of Silence” and hit commercial paydirt (as well as vastly improving the song). Smelling a good opportunity, Simon & Garfunkel reformed and recorded Sounds of Silence, released in 1966. Though a huge improvement over the debut, Sounds of Silence was still a largely uneven effort. Despite the now-classic title track and a pair of aces in “Richard Cory” and “I Am a Rock,” the album tended to vacillate unpredictably between traditional-sounding folk songs (a style which Simon does not write particularly well) ala the debut and obvious folk songs which they’ve unsuccessfully tried to transform into folk-rock, perhaps in hopes of duplicating the success of the title cut.
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is where they started to get it right. The traditional folk influence is still around, as evidenced by the opening “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” whose basis is a traditional folk song, but the crystalline beauty of the vocal arrangement and the understated instrumental accompaniment renders the song unforgettable, especially if you’ve seen The Graduate. The hit “Homeward Bound” continues in the folk-rock vein, but unlike, say, “Blessed” (from Sounds of Silence), the rock beat does not feel imposed upon the song. Songs like “Homeward Bound” are the reason the term “folk-rock” was invented. Soaring and beautiful, the song is fully deserving of its classic status. Also highly recommended is “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” an acoustic sketch with a soaring Art Garfunkel vocal performance, one he wouldn’t match until “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
But, as is often the case, with the good comes the bad. As Simon’s songwriting prowess was growing, so was his pretense, his desire to “say something” with his music. Perhaps this was as much a product of the era as of Simon’s personality, though I imagine it’s a bit of both. “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” is a (yawn) satire of American consumerism, and the album’s cringe-worthy closer pairs a reading of “Silent Night” with a recording of a typically violent news broadcast. Clever. Mr. Simon had yet to realize that he (and, really, most writers) have a better chance of connecting with a listener if writing happens on a small (read: personal) scale rather than a large (political) one. I obviously cannot speak for all, but “Homeward Bound” speaks much greater volumes to me than “The Dangling Conversation.” Based on what came next, it would seem that Simon reached a similar conclusion.
The duo’s fourth and best album, Bookends, was released in 1968 and focuses on the personal and the intimate. Brushing aside the sweeping generalizations of his “protest” songs, Simon focuses instead on small-scale, intimate situations, in the process creating songs with far more universal impact than the overtly political numbers from Parsley… A good example of this is “America,” a simple dialogue between lovers that says more about the human condition than “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” could ever hope to. Even “Mrs. Robinson,” the album’s most famous and most obvious “statement” song, does its proselytizing by addressing a single person. A small point perhaps, but to my mind an important one. The song is unquestionably a “statement” song, but it makes its point by addressing a single person rather than an abstract group (our “society,” for instance). It has been said by a smarter person than I that the most personal songs are also the most universal, as songs like “America” can attest.
But even as the duo began its pubescent growth spurt, it became clear that Simon & Garfunkel was not long for this world. As personal and professional issues drove them apart, they came together for a final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Although the duo is said to have spent over 800 hours recording Bridge…, it feels like a conscious scaling back from the seriousness of Bookends, a collection of songs more concerned with providing a catchy hook than with making a statement.
It does, however, contain some of their finest songs; the monumental gospel-flavored title track, which features Garfunkel’s best vocal, “Cecilia,” where Simon’s fascination with world music really begins to show, “The Boxer,” and “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” for instance. Although the arrangements themselves are often quite sprawling, the songs themselves are simpler and less socially conscious. The live cover of “Bye Bye Love,” “Cecilia,” and “Baby Driver” are indicative of the album’s carefree tone. And it’s a welcome change.
And then it was over. Paul Simon went on to great success as a solo artist and Art Garfunkel made some solo albums I’ve never heard and scored the occasional acting gig, but nothing they’ve done individually has come close to eclipsing the legacy they created collectively. And while I don’t think any of their albums are great all the way through, there are some unquestionably great songs in their canon. Are any of these five albums essential purchases? No. Are there 15-20 songs that are absolutely unforgettable and fully deserving of their classic status? You bet.
So what’s a discerning music fan to do? I don’t really know. I’m glad I finally got a chance to hear these albums, the remastered sound is great, and the bonus tracks (mostly demos and alternate takes), while probably worth it for the devoted fan, are utterly superfluous are far as I’m concerned. Sorry to give you gray if you wanted black or white, but that’s the way it is.