Monday, February 26, 2018

Bookends

Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote short, seamless poetry that was nothing but effortless; so it seemed. Yeats, in reality, struggled with revision after revision to create his work. That's the way that Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends may seem, a seamless, effortless masterpiece; a masterpiece, yes, effortless, far from it. Work began on the project in mid 1967 in a bit of a piecemeal fashion that included previously unreleased songs, leftovers from The Graduate soundtrack and a mish-mosh of what didn't seem worth the effort; Paul Simon seemingly lost in the struggle, and yet, by late in the year, the Summer of Love in everyone's rear view, the pieces started to come together. What would emerge was by far Simon and Garfunkel's greatest achievement, as well as one of the greatest LPs ever made.

Side One is a concept piece on the subject of aging that kicks off with a thirty-second instrumental snippet of the title track. The full-length vocal arrangement of the song appears at the end of the same side, the two versions serving as, indeed, bookends. The instrumental opening serves as a nice way to ease into the creepy synthesizer-laden intro of "Save the Life of My Child," captured like a developing Polaroid: a young boy is balanced precariously on the ledge of building ready to take his own life or possibly to fly away. Psychedelically produced with multi-layers of dialog and vocal exercises, the song deconstructs itself and segues into the road weary opening hums of "America," one of the greatest songs by anyone, ever, inarguable. "America" is a dusty pastiche of a scrapbook that couldn't be told better in any other medium. Acoustic guitars slightly chorused shimmer under Paul and Art's blended singular voice. A whistling organ breezes in, punctuated by kettle drum, the song rises and falls dynamically with the emotion of the lyrics. "Kathy, I'm lost I said, though I knew she was sleeping, I'm empty and aching and I don't know why," blossom into a glorious emotional peak that defies analysis. Phew. From there, it's a natural transition into the equally weary "Overs," a meditation on a crumbling marriage. The next track, "Voices of Old People" is actually nothing more than a series of field recordings (made by Art Garfunkel) at retirement homes that fittingly fades into the chillingly beautiful ballad "Old Friends," one of Simon’s prettiest melodies. "Old Friends" in turn fades into the full-length version of the title track. The songs go so perfectly together that most hits compilations by the duo that include "Old Friends" also include "Bookends" immediately afterwards (or even link the two together as a single track.)

Side Two loses the LPs theme, but in essence, these tracks punctuate what's on Side One, as if Side Two were the OST of Side One, the songs meshing nicely into the album's theme. "Fakin' It," looks back on an earlier life. (Fun trivia: because radio at the time would rarely play anything over three minutes, Paul Simon “faked it” and had the labels for the 45 tweaked to make the song’s 3:15 running time read “2:75” instead.) The Graduate outtake “Punky’s Dilemma” doesn’t fit quite as well lyrically into the rest of the album, but the lighthearted stroll of its music is well-placed in this particular slot on the disc, providing a nice segue into the equally breezy "Mrs. Robinson," the duo’s biggest hit."A Hazy Shade of Winter," previously a non-LP single from 1966, follows. Lyrically, it’s a perfect fit for the concept, and the song’s driving tempo and ironically aggressive acoustic-guitar riff help provide a nice kick after the lazy vibe of the prior two cuts. Brilliantly, there is no extended pause separating the breathless ending of the song from the opening notes of the album's closer, the sweeping "At the Zoo," itself a non-LP single from 1967. 

Experimental and impeccably produced, Bookends is the duo's best album. The songwriting is flawless, the album's flow is perfect and the experiments have aged very well. Paul Simon has done lots of great and innovative things as a solo artist, but more than 50 years into his career, this remains his finest achievement.