Bridge Over Troubled Water (40th Anniversary Edition)
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/13/2011
It took me a long time to understand how progressive rock stalwarts Yes ended up covering a Simon & Garfunkel song (“America”) early in their career.
For any who still scratch their heads at that choice, though, a listen to the 40th Anniversary Edition of the seminal folk-rock duo’s final studio album Bridge Over Troubled Water (hereafter BOTW) may serve as clarification. To be sure, the roots of the pair’s music in the two-part harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the playful, relatively innocent rockabilly-pop of the late ’50s and early ’60s are front and center on tunes like “Baby Driver,” but what’s striking on BOTW is the rich orchestral elements of tunes like “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.” This is hardly campfire folk music; these are, for the most part, orchestral pop songs rendered with full and lively string and horn arrangements.
The immortal title track especially has a classical feel and structure—verses and choruses, yes, but also a distinct build to a dramatic crescendo of billowing strings. Even the vocal structures—long the backbone of the pair’s sound—take a turn here, as they sing less in pure harmony and more in counterpoint, with Garfunkel taking the lead on most of “BOTW” and Simon taking the lead on most of “The Only Living Boy In New York City” and a couple of other tracks.
They also experiment quite a bit with sound on this album, making it their Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper’s—a real-life ambition that becomes that much clearer upon viewing the two video features on the DVD included with this special edition (and which I’ll primarily focus on here since BOTW itself has already been reviewed by both Jeff Clutterbuck and Michael R. Smith). The DVD offers both the full original broadcast version of the duo’s 1969 CBS TV special Songs For America and a documentary on the making of BOTW.
Songs For America is a fascinating artifact, utterly of its time, and Simon & Garfunkel’s vision entirely. Their film—for it feels much more like a film than a TV show—is a weird hybrid of documentary and music video, full of references both overt and covert to the social and political turmoil of the era, in terms of both the visuals presented over their songs and the dialogue the duo engage in on camera. The montage of early 1960s heroes—including Mickey Mantle, JFK, Martin Luther King, RFK and Cesar Chavez—that plays over a medley of “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is especially poignant.
The second DVD feature, The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, looks back from the modern day on the creation of the album and is rich with reminiscences and insights from Simon, Garfunkel, co-producer Roy Halee and several of the players on the album. We hear how “The Boxer” grew to become one of the most sonically complex tracks of its era, its haunting, wordless “lie-la-lie” chorus recorded in a cathedral, while the huge drum strikes that punctuate each line of the chorus were recorded later, in perfect time, in a hallway at Columbia Studios. We learn about Halee literally running out of tracks while recording “The Boxer” and talking Columbia Records president Clive Davis into buying a 16-track recorder just so they could complete the song. We learn that the angelic chorus of background vocals on “The Only Living Boy In New York City” weren’t multi-tracked or overdubbed, they were actually sung live by Simon and Garfunkel as the duo stood inside an echo chamber.
The pair also discuss their determination to make a sonically adventurous and varied album, citing the improvised percussion on “Cecilia” (which includes piano bench and wastebasket), and the choice to include a live version of “Bye Bye Love,” with the audience providing the handclap rhythm track. They could just as well have noted things like the flamenco flourishes of “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” or the island vibe of “Why Don’t You Write Me”—both previews of directions Simon would explore as a solo artist during the ’70s.
Near the end of the genuinely fascinating Harmony Game, Simon offers these words of wisdom on the possibilities if he and Garfunkel hadn’t gone their separate ways after BOTW: “It would have been a very hard album to follow, because there wasn’t any way to get bigger than Bridge Over Troubled Water. It was grandiose in all kinds of ways.”
It was, in fact, a classic album, the kind of high note most artists aspire to go out on. And they did.