26 January 1970
Happy 50th Anniversary to Bridge Over Troubled Water. I have to say that until a few years ago, my only familiarity with this album was the title song. I’d heard all the singles without knowing they were from this record or even realizing they were Simon & Garfunkel tunes. I don’t know how that’s possible, but it’s true. It sure was a treat getting to know the full album.
It’s a really special record. The opening title track, of course, is a monument in the history museum of popular music, with its simple piano accompaniment and Art Garfunkel’s crystal clear, brittle tenor reassuring everyone in the world that they are not alone. The orchestration in the closing crescendo adds to the tapestry, underscoring the weight of the lyrics. As a side note, I once attended a wedding where the mother of the groom chose this song to dance with her son at the opening of the reception. The couple split up within ten years and I often wondered if this sour old woman ended up being her newly-divorced son’s bridge over troubled water.
“El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” is a song I’d heard a hundred times, but never knew the name of, nor who it was by. It is another song with deceptively sparse instrumentation and beautiful lyrics. The melody is delightful, carried by Simon’s vocals and backed primarily by flute, acoustic guitar, and a single drum and hi-hat. Strings come in during the second half but the song never really picks up any intensity or volume; the new instruments arrive very organically and without any fanfare, then close out the song on their own, eliciting the Peruvian folk music on which the song is based.
“Cecilia” was an exercise in improvised percussion, with some sparse guitar and what sounds like a pennywhistle. It tells the tale of a cuckolded lover who succeeds in winning back the object of his affection (though why he’d want to is never addressed). “The Boxer,” which opens side two, rounds out the singles from the album, with its semi-autobiographical ballad and it’s sing-along “Lie-la-lie” chorus. It is said that it took over 100 hours of recording to create the sonic pastiche that makes up this song and regardless of how much you like the song, it is hard to argue with its sonic perfection.
So, then, hearing this album for the first time so many years after it was released, the real revelations for me were the deeper album cuts. I had honestly expected the whole record to sound like the almost sleepy folk of the title track and I was surprised to find it very much otherwise, especially since, apart from “Cecilia,” which you could argue is a rock’n’roll number – or at least some nice upbeat pop – the other 45s followed in much the same vein as “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Some of my favorites from this record, though, were left tucked away neatly behind the album’s singles.
The first hidden gem on the record is the swinging shuffle of “Keep The Customer Satisfied” with its skiffle beat and clever rhyming. It starts out as a simple acoustic guitar number but blows up after the second chorus into a massive wave of sound, stacks and stacks of horns blowing the whole song wonderfully out of proportion. It’s a great follow up to the light pop of “Cecilia.” It gives way to the soft folk of “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” with its Art Garfunkel lead vocal and pretty instrumental flute bridge. This ends side one and, in turn, leads into the soft major keys of “The Boxer” to open side two.
The second half of the disc continues with “Baby Driver,” a rock stomper propelled by it’s walking bassline and joyful vocals. More than any other song on the album, “Baby Driver” was a revelation for me, the bridge between Simon & Garfunkel, the folk duo, and Paul Simon, the pop/rock giant of the ’70s and ’80s. It starts with familial reminiscence but soon moves into the realm of sexual exploration in true rock fashion. It has quickly become one of my all-time favorite songs.
The rest of the album straddles the line between folk and pop/rock, with “The Only Living Boy In New York” starting out as a simple acoustic ditty before layering in Beatles-like vocal harmonies, Ringoesque drum fills, and a Hammond. “Why Don’t You Write Me” is an upbeat – almost silly – song with island rhythms and Beach Boys arrangements, including a big fat sax solo right in the middle of the song. They close with a live cover of The Everly Brothers hit, “Bye Bye Love” and the brief, sweet, live, acoustic number “Song For The Asking.”
I don’t revisit this album frequently enough but every time I do I’m surprised anew, having forgotten how much power is contained in the simple melodies and arrangements, how much joy in the massive production on some of the numbers. With the possible exception of the title track, these are not songs that I’ve had drilled into my conscious and subconscious through endlessly saturating repetition. Instead, I’ve come to them late in life and appreciate them on a different level, I think, than I would have if I’d heard this as a teen or young adult.
Fifty years on, and the record still sounds fresh and new. I can’t tell if that’s the magic of these songs or that I’ve only been exposed to the whole album within the past two years. Maybe it’s both.