The duo’s final official studio LP together remains pop’s fondest farewell
Paul Simon is possibly the greatest American songwriter of the 1960s. And with the help of Art Garfunkel’s angelic voice, he led one of the most influential, eclectic, meaningful, and just plain timeless duos ever.
The amount of breathtaking pieces Simon & Garfunkel released over the course of a mere handful of albums—’Kathy’s Song,’ ‘The Dangling Conversation,’ ‘Bookends Theme,’ ‘The Sounds of Silence,’ ‘America,’ ‘Homeward Bound,’ ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter,’ and the ingenious masterpiece that is ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle,’ to name a few—makes their legacy virtually unmatched to this day. Instrumentally, they also stood out by incorporating bits of world music, jazz, R&B, gospel, and spoken word narration (among other styles) into their folk-rock foundation. Thus, they embodied the peak possibilities of putting socially conscious and poetic lyricism, singing, and arrangements into popular music, and it’s fair to say that they left an indelible mark on just about every singer/songwriter that followed.
While it’s hard to pick a definitive Simon & Garfunkel album (since each one has a few of their best tunes and represents both their creative growth and their graceful response to current events), their fifth and final outing, Bridge Over Troubled Water, is surely a contender. Released on January 26, 1970 and produced by the pair alongside Roy Halee, it arrived less than two years after 1968’s hugely successful Bookends. Sadly, it was also created amidst a lot of bubbling professional and creative turmoil that was exacerbated by Garfunkel acting in ‘The Graduate’ director Mike Nichols’ adaption of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22′ (which Simon was also supposed to be in). Reportedly, production on the film took longer than expected, leaving Simon frustrated and artistically delayed without his partner. That situation, coupled with other factors, led them to go their separate ways by 1971 (although they’d obviously reunite now and then over the subsequent years). In fact, there’s a whole making-of documentary called The Harmony Game that deeply explores those behind-the-scenes circumstances.
VIDEO: The Story of Bridge Over Troubled Water
Of course, that wasn’t the first time the duo decided to call it quits, as the initially poor sales of 1964’s debut LP, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., led Simon to venture out on his own and tour the burgeoning folk scene in England. Fortunately, though, DJ Dick Summer helped make their original version of “The Sound of Silence” so prevalent on the radio that Columbia Records producer Tom Wilson decided to do a more embellished version without Simon & Garfunkel’s knowledge. It came out as a single in September 1965, sold over a million copies, and convinced the pair to try again. The rest, as they say, is history. Nevertheless, this second and lasting disbandment—like the parting of The Beatles around the same time—signified not only the end of a majorly beloved musical act, but the end of a cultural era as well.
Given all of those internal struggles, it’s remarkable that ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ turned out so well. Beyond being perhaps their most emblematically varied and striving record—with the help of several Wrecking Crew members, such as guitarist Fred Carter, Jr., bassist Joe Osborn, drummer Hal Blaine, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel—it was a commercial triumph.
For instance, it topped the charts in nearly a dozen countries (remaining CBS Records’ best-selling album until Michael Jackson’s Thriller in 1982) and received two Grammy Awards (for Album of the Year and Best Engineered Recording). Since then, it’s sold over twenty-five million copies—earning it a classification of 8x Platinum by the RIAA—and in recent years, publications like Rolling Stone, The Times, Classic Rock, Pitchfork, and AllMusic have sung its praises. Despite receiving mixed reviews at first, it’s now considered their best work by a lot of listeners.
So, does Bridge Over Troubled Water still deserve such revere? Absolutely. Admittedly, it’s not my favorite of theirs (I adore Bookends so much that I named my creative arts journal after it), but it’s easy to hear why so many fans value it above its predecessors.
Let’s start with their trademark haunting emotional resonance, which exemplifies why no one wrote—or has written—ballads and slice-of-life snapshots like Paul Simon (although newcomers like Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom have come close). Naturally, the title track—which kicks off the collection—has become one of their most enduring and illustrative songs, resulting in covers from dozens of artists, including Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Fiona Apple, and Johnny Cash. Its chief musical distinctions alone—a clear gospel affect around an emphasis on piano, orchestral backing, and predominantly lone Garfunkel vocals (ironically, considering that he didn’t want to sing it at first, it’s likely his greatest lead performance as part of the pair)—makes it a beautifully booming touchstone of the period. Add to that the influence of racial tensions in America, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and Simon’s then-wife, Peggy, and you have some of their most impactfully elegiac words, too. Lastly—and to make another Beatles comparison—it seems like their version of ‘Let It Be’ (which Simon himself stated shortly after they finished it) in that it’s also a sort of optimistic and supportive farewell to their fans. It’s as if they’re saying, “No matter what the 1960s did to you or what happens in the 1970s, we’ll be there for you, friends,”; for better or worse, that message has lost none of its longevity as the world continues to wrestle with itself.
AUDIO: Simon & Garfunkel perform “The Boxer” on Saturday Night Live, 1975
Another touching gem, “The Boxer,” combines pinnacle acoustic storytelling (largely regarding financial struggle, loneliness, and Simon feeling unfairly persecuted) with a healthy dose of robust and multifaceted instrumentation. It’d be overwhelmingly poignant and striking if there was nothing more to it than their signature fingerpicking, reflective lyrics, woeful melodies, and heavenly harmonies. But the ways in which it contrasts that core with startling percussive booms, mournful strings, and quirky bass harmonica and piccolo trumpet accentuations makes thr context sublimely wide-ranging, too. Of course, “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)” is a serenely tasteful and airy adaption of Peruvian composer Daniel Alomía Robles’ 1913 orchestral staple; “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” is a calming and classically-tinged ode that falls in line with Simon’s earlier nods to real-life figures; “The Only Living Boy in New York” is wonderfully simple and contemplative (aside from its mesmerizingly impassioned bursts of “Half of the time, we’re gone / But we don’t know where / And we don’t know when”); and closer “Song for the Asking” is like the opposite of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”: a solo Simon performance with faint and traditional accompaniment.
In contrast, the album packs some characteristically upbeat and/or playful energy as well. Specifically, “Cecilia” is a durable tongue-in-cheek account of romantic transgression that’s actually stimulated by St. Cecilia and Simon’s issues with songwriting and fame. It’s quite catchy and fun, with world music elements—mainly, the backup vocals and organic percussion—predicting where he’d go as a solo artist. Afterward, ‘Keep the Customer Satisfied’ has touches of Big Band and rockabilly as its bright sing-along appeal evokes the early-to-mid ‘60s pop zeitgeist. Later, ‘Baby Drive’—whose title was taken for Edgar Wright’s 2017 action-comedy film—is an enjoyably breezy rock and roll track about a boy who seeks adventure and sexual conquest after growing up in a well-off household. ‘Why Don’t You Write Me?’ is mainly a standard and easygoing folk-rock tune, but there’s also a slight reggae edge to it halfway in. As for the penultimate cover of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s ‘Bye Bye Love’ (recorded live in Ames, Iowa), it’s appropriately scaled-back and reserved, having more in common with The Everly Brothers’ more famous take than you might expect and harkening back to their days as Tom & Jerry.
Fifty years on, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ has lost none of its power, charm, or exploratory and forward-thinking originality. In and of itself, it captures everything that made Simon & Garfunkel such a special and significant act; when placed in a broader context (as the swan song of the duo and a primary artistic mark of a cultural transition), it looms even larger. Whether full-bodied and texturally diverse, or gently and movingly focused on a single style, it’s an ageless and essential sequence that everyone should experience.