There’s a strange, almost mythical image of folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, one which I used to share until I began going through their discography – it’s of a quiet, unassuming pair from (mostly upper-class) Forest Hills, New York that comprised of one guy (Paul Simon) strum-humming about marbles and promises while the other (Art Garfunkel) rocked back and forth on a petit stool with a vacant expression, occasionally singing a word or two. This particular image, I am glad to say, was more or less broken by the time I sat through Sounds of Silence (1966) and was completely shattered after listening to and digesting their fourth studio album Bookends, released in 1968.
Cultural champions after the providing the soundtrack for the film The Graduate in 1967, Simon & Garfunkel shortly returned to the studio to complete additional recording for their upcoming album. On the surface, Bookends appears to continue the duo’s tradition of packing Simon-penned acoustic pieces around pushed singles (in this case, “Mrs. Robinson”) but the album is really a story in two parts – these are purposefully separated by Side A and Side B. The album’s first half could be loosely described as a concept piece, covering themes of birth, life and death in 60s America, and the second half is mostly Simon flexing his newly acquired influences, and doing so much better than on the largely forgettable preceding effort Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme from 1967.
Beginning with the brief, breezy acoustic “Bookends Theme”, the album truly announces itself with “Save the Life of My Child”, opening with a surprisingly thick, ethereal moog synthesiser, completely breaking tradition from the pair’s previous releases. The duo break the mould even further, as additional sounds and voices flood the aural atmosphere, from distorted synths to snippets of “The Sound of Silence” (released two years prior) complete with almost ghostly wails while Simon sings the refrain “Save the life of my child / Cried the desperate mother”. Showing just how far Simon had come as a songwriter, the track is a greater reflection on particular attitudes within American society at the time, depicting a boy who is on the verge of plunging to his death, and rather than assisting him the adult population instead blame his actions on drugs and a lack of respect.
Following a smooth transition, “America” is perhaps the first indication in Bookends of Simon’s growing admiration for British music, featuring drum fills that sound like they were pulled straight from The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” (courtesy of legendary Wrecking Crew session musician Hal Blaine) along with psychedelic-tinged keyboards and incessantly pleasant double-tracked acoustic guitar, all providing a backdrop for vocal harmonies by the pair which range from soft and airy to emphatic and prolonged. It’s the first song with a real and distinctive sense of character that the pair had recorded, pulling in a range of influences but not really sounding like anybody else. The next track does sound like Simon & Garfunkel however, but not completely – “Overs” is a bare, pure acoustic piece which separates the two’s vocal duties, including a verse of Garfunkel singing solo, which is a rarity to hear. A sombre number, the track deals with a sort of helplessness and inevitability that usually accompanies a dying relationship, in this case being Simon’s lover Kathy Chitty, who was earlier referenced in “America”. Then there’s “Voices of Old People”, a track that has me completely stumped as to why it was included – it’s literally two minutes of recordings that Garfunkel had made, interviewing elderly people from (I’m assuming) his neighbourhood. I can appreciate what they were both trying to accomplish here, as the whole ‘concept’ approach (thanks Sgt. Pepper’s) was all the rage in 1968, but leading in from the superb “America” and “Overs”, it disrupts the flow of the album, acting as a bizarre and unnecessary segue into the sentimental, dreamy acoustic ballads “Old Friends” and “Bookends”.
Kicking off Side B, “Fakin’ It” is evidence that Simon also found a lot to like in particular strands of American popular music, in this instance borrowing heavily from the psychedelic-folk sounds of Love’s Forever Changes, making use of a strong, recurring acoustic riff as well as handclaps and brief, otherworldly bursts of horns and strings. A track that is littered with aspects of British psychedelic-pop, “Punky’s Dilemma” is a finely crafted happy-go-lucky piece that includes lines like “I wish I was an English muffin / ‘Bout to make the most of a toaster / I’d ease myself down / Coming up brown / I prefer boysenberry / Than any other jam”, and is really just Simon tipping his hat to groups like Small Faces and The Zombies in a very appropriate and charming way. Undoubtedly the album’s biggest audience puller, the endearing, folk-pop staple “Mrs. Robinson” is still a classic track, one that has probably been most associated with the pair, and deservedly so. Originally titled “Mrs. Roosevelt” but reworked to fit the narrative of The Graduate, the upbeat sing-a-long nature of the song belies Simon’s lyrics, who pines for the loss of American icons and role models, as well as being disillusioned with the political climate in the late 60s – “Going to the candidates’ debate / Laugh about it / Shout about it / When you’ve got to choose / Every way you look at it you lose”. A chart-topper through and through, “Mrs. Robinson” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 and later earned the pair a Grammy, in the form of Record of the Year. The album’s last pairing; “A Hazy Shade of Winter” and “At the Zoo” encapsulate the very nature of Bookends, or at least its second half, with the former imbuing the same driving, cheery vibe as “Mrs. Robinson” and the latter signing the album off by superbly balancing soft, quiet acoustic passages with verses in the style of a children’s song, and an incredibly infectious one at that.
With only a few glaring shortcomings, Bookends is a delightful offering of folk-pop, sure the vague concept in the album’s first half isn’t particularly well orchestrated, but the individual songs (not interview recordings) are still melodic, brilliantly composed and meticulously arranged. Not bad for a pair that I once thought of as guys that sat on stools and hummed a bit. Along with Sounds of Silence and their last studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water, it’s basically essential listening for anyone who, like myself not long ago, don’t exactly rate Simon & Garfunkel or aren’t aware of their true musicality – chances are your image may be shattered too, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.