Tuesday, December 27, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 351: Simon and Garfunkel

Merry Christmas to everyone! We are just returned from spending Christmas Day with my family (we alternate where we are each year) and will soon be doing a second Christmas with my inlaws. In the meantime, I am taking today to have a little down time and get a review written I've been meaning to get done for a while.

Disc 351 is...Bridge Over Troubled Water

Artist: Simon and Garfunkel

Year of Release: 1970

What’s Up With The Cover?: The folk duo poses in ugly, ill-fitting seventies clothing. Garfunkel's mouth is obscured by Simon's head, which is kind of ironic, since Garfunkel's singing is the bulk of what he brought to the band.

How I Came To Know It: I have owned "Sounds of Silence" (reviewed back at Disc 239) since the late eighties and loved it. A few years later I was looking around and this seemed to be the next record to get.

How It Stacks Up: I only have two Simon and Garfunkel albums, although I may be spending some of my Christmas money on a third. Of the two, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is the better record.

Rating: 5 stars.

For Christmas this year, Santa put Paul Simon's newest album, "So Beautiful Or So What" in my stocking. I have yet to give it the careful listen it deserves, but last night I gave it a once-through and I can already tell Paul Simon hasn't lost his songwriting ability as a solo artist.

That said, there is a magic to Simon's works with Art Garfunkel that will always hold a special place in my heart, and in particular their last album, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" which is widely regarded as their best. I'm looking forward to getting the three I don't have ("Wednesday Morning, 3 AM", "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme" and "Bookends") and putting that claim to the test, but I have a feeling "Bridge" will hold up.

In terms of musical range, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" takes their work far farther than anything I've heard from other records. Horns and handclaps are mixed in with more traditional piano and acoustic guitar, in a way that compliments but never violates the duo's established folk aesthetic.

These two guys love their harmonies, whether they are using them beautifully and thoughtfully on "El Condor Pasa" playfully on "Cecilia" and "Keep The Customer Satisfied" or mournfully on "The Boxer" and "The Only Living Boy In New York." On this record they are the masters of capturing mood just with vocal arrangements and then reinforcing that mood with their choice of instrumentation.

In fact, the title track on this record is notable for eschewing harmonies for the first two thirds of the song, relying entirely on the gentle airiness of Art Garfunkel's high range and a single piano. This song features one of the great vocal performances of modern music, with Garfunkel's voice starting so fragile you think that at any moment he is going to miss a note, or his voice is going to crack, but it never happens. The emptiness in the track makes the listener keenly aware of the darkness and danger all around, but also confident that the voice - frail, yet powerful - will lead us safely through. It isn't until well into the song that Paul Simon adds his own voice into the harmony, and the song soars to its trumphant end.

"Sounds of Silence" is a great record, but it never takes time to lighten up, starting with the morose title track and ending with the broken-hearted shut-in voicing "I Am A Rock." By contrast, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" lightens up through the middle tracks. The travelling salesman in "Keep The Customer Satisfied", accompanied by a flourish of trumpet, and the cuckolded lover in "Cecilia," full of happy hand claps as he sings about finding a strange man in bed with his girl. Never was infidelity depicted with so much catchy and infectious fun.

This decision to have lighthearted tracks, just makes their serious songs that much more emotionally impactful. Not that any assistance is needed, with the daydreamy angst of "The Only Living Boy In New York" and the tragic tale of "The Boxer" lonely and penniless on the streets of New York. These are two of the finest songs ever written period, never mind simply two of the best on this album.

"The Boxer" always hits me square in the gut, no matter how many times I hear it. From his early arrival in New York, to a descent into loneliness so abject that he is happy just to find fleeting comfort in the hands of street prostitutes. For all this, the defiance of the final stanza always has the strongest resonance for me:

"In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of ev'ry glove that laid him down
Or cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
'I am leaving, I am leaving'
But the fighter still remains."

The line offers little hope of a glorious comeback, but there is a dignity and an honour even in his declaration of surrender ("I am leaving") simply because in the end he does not leave. You are only beaten when you decide you're beaten, and not before. I find the whole song more inspirational than tragic.

Then by comparison, the Zen acceptance of "The Only Living Boy In New York," which always makes me think of absent friends who I see too infrequently. This song, too, in a couple of lines gives me more wisdom than entire albums by lesser artists. In particular, "Half of the time we're gone, but we don't know where" and "I get all the news I need on the weather report." If we could just internalize these two concepts, I know we'd all be a lot happier.

Again, with both tracks the music perfectly suits the mood, sometimes swelling with angelic backing vocals, sometimes nothing more than a sombre close harmony sung low to capture harshness of winter on a New York Street. None of these things ever sound strained or emotionally manipulative. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is an album that evokes deep emotion from me, but never cheats to do so.

Walking to and from work for a couple of days listening to this record put my mind is a restful, yet alert state; almost meditative. I arrived each day ready to learn and enjoy the experience. I've heard this record dozens, if not hundreds of times and it always has this effect on me. I think it makes me a better person just listening to it. If you have foolishly settled for a Simon and Garfunkel greatest hits album, let me impress upon you just how much great music you are missing by not going to source. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is a classic for a reason.

Best tracks: All tracks, but special love for Bridge Over Troubled Water, El Condor Pasa, The Boxer and The Only Living Boy In New York

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