Monday, April 16, 2018

Time It Was and What a Time It Was, It Was

Cover by Richard Avedon
Bookends (AM9)
Artist: Simon and Garfunkel
Produced by: Simon and Garfunkel, Roy Halee
Released: April 3, 1968
Length: 29:51
Tracks: 1) Bookends Theme (:32); 2) Save the Life of My Child (2:49); 3) America (3:34) 4) Overs (2:14); 5) Voices of Old People (2:07); 6) Bookends Theme (1:16) 7) Fakin' It (3:14); 8) Punky's Dilemma (2:10); 9) Mrs. Robinson (4:02); 10) A Hazy Shade of Winter (2:17); 11) At the Zoo (2:21)
Players: Paul Simon - vocals, guitar; Art Garfunkel - vocals, guitar; Hal Blaine - drums, percussion; Joe Osborn - bass; Larry Knecktel - piano, synths 

Ultimately, and through no fault of its own, Bookends suffers from the fame of half its songs. Tracks like "Mrs. Robinson," "A Hazy Shade of Winter," "America," and "At the Zoo" are so well known that it's hard to view the album as a whole. To the casual listener, the song snippets, experiments and overdubs, so essential to the theme, come across as irritating interludes between hits.
 
While the duo's previous LP (1966's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme) showcased both Simon's lyricism and Garfunkel's elegiac vocals, Bookends transcends its predecessor in terms of its subtle ambition. Traditional production values and classic song structure are disavowed by Simon's lithe songwriting and Garfunkel's atypical vocal arrangements. Each of the duo's customary roles are intertwined, leaving Bookends their most diplomatic work; most notably Simon's zeugmatic lyrical stream on "Save the Life of My Child" and Garfunkel's beautiful interlude on "Overs;" (arguably the critics' least favorite tracks).

The beauty of the album is overpowering. "America," like The Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" and The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" is breathtaking. In Steven Holden's 1972 New York Times review he said: “It is three and a half minutes of sheer brilliance, whose unforced narrative, alternating precise detail with sweeping observation, evokes the panorama of restless, paved America and simultaneously illuminates a drama of shared loneliness on a bus trip with cosmic implications." Yeah, yeah, in simpler terms, it's beautiful; as is "Old Friends," but there instead is the perpetual sadness haunting our mortality.

One of many Saginaw buildings with "America" graffiti.
Themes of age and aging pervade the record with tracks calling into question many sacrosanct inter-generational ideals, yet failing to provide any answers. Like life, Bookends can be frustrating, yet it is those tracks that most readily take this ambiguous stance, which are the most beloved in Simon and Garfunkel's canon (the hits listed above plus “Old Friends/Bookends). For much of its overt seriousness and underlying caveat, however, there is still an infectious sense of exuberance to Bookends ("Fakin' It" and "Punky's Dilemma"), and it takes a heart of stone not to reminisce "At the Zoo." Simon and Garfunkel are folk music's most acclaimed duo and as such the albums before and after Bookends are often perceived as their finest. In AM terms, Bookends is the top dog, an album that transcends the folk hashtag; only the brevity of the album and experimentation that doesn't quite work keep the album from being an AM10.