Naturally, we are duty bound to consider the music, the recordings, first of all.
Most perhaps, come to Simon and Garfunkel by way of the beauty of Art Garfunkel’s voice, or else at invite of the unquestioned majesty heralded by the duo’s renowned and exquisite harmonies. While these are certainly reason to indulge, I’d suggest the first basis on which one ought seek out these much treasured songs is for the rare quality of the writing. Within the realm of popular music, and of his generation, only Dylan may be considered the poetic equal of Paul Simon. All others trail somewhere far in the distance.
Simon himself is aware of this. In a fit of pique during one of the many antagonistic bouts between himself and Garfunkel, Simon dared wonder aloud where exactly his partner might have been heard had it not been for the songs Simon had penned. While nobody would doubt the contribution of Garfunkel and his angelic tenor to the duo’s success, the question itself isn’t entirely without pertinence; in the 30 years since their separation as a recording act, Simon has enjoyed a solo career that at times has mirrored the peaks of early success, while you’d be hard pressed to name a single Art Garfunkel song, beyond one that was adapted as a soundtrack and successfully played behind an animated bunny.
Even Simon’s former wife, Carrie Fisher, suggested that the one thing she would have liked in the divorce settlement was her ex’s gift with words: this from a woman who makes a fine living of her own from literary skills.
Of course, Simon was always one of the more self-conscious poets of pop, referencing the likes of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost (“The Dangling Conversation”), and, not least for a boy from New York, perennially alluding to nature in simile and metaphor. In a less skilled writer it might have come across as precious, but there’s little pretension in true eloquence.
In its range and depth, a song like “America” aspires to literature; it had better, given the grandiosity of its title, but the thought doesn’t arise while you listen to the song. At the other end of the spectrum, a piece like “Kathy’s Song” is, to use a Fitzgerald phrase, “as intimate as the rustle of sheets.” It is three-and-a-half minutes of abject longing transposed to music.
Each of these songs, and a further thirty ancient, lovely, and abundantly familiar songs besides, are included on the new Columbia Records release The Essential Simon and Garfunkel. You won’t find argument here that the vast majority of these selections are indeed essential—but then again, I already thought so when they were released on The Very Best of , the Greatest Hits, Old Friends (three-disc set), and The Columbia Studio Recordings 1964-70 (five-disc set). If nothing else, I suppose, the separate releases allow you to administer your own S&G dose, practically anticipating the “download-your-own picks” revolution of the Internet. From the fourteen track Greatest Hits (worth avoiding, if only for its regrettable cover image), to the fetishistic multi-song multi-version cornucopia of the Studio Recordings, you can now almost precisely select your level of commitment to the Simon and Garfunkel listening experience.
Of course, the latest offering is not only timed to coincide with the latest Simon and Garfunkel reunion tour, but pretty much has the tour as its raison d’etre. Still, I’d imagine that few who shelled-out money for the shows have need of another new collection. Personally, I’d be hard pressed to imagine fresh converts splashing out on one hundred dollar tickets to see an act that hasn’t recorded new material in three decades.
Yet, for those who don’t own one of the myriad S&G collections The Essential is, I suppose, as good as any place to begin. I would venture to suggest, however, that if Columbia Records is intent on releasing “essential” collections from each of the major artists on its roster (it’s true that this CD is only one in a series they can’t all be touring, can they?), then both artist and listener surely deserve some sort of liner notes to honor and guide them. In truth, the series is aimed at the more casual listener, the listener less likely to explore an artist catalogue album by album. Given that, doesn’t it make sense to include notes on historical context? Collections are, hopefully, mere stepping-stones to further investigation. At least, that’s the theory.
All the more surprising then, that any label would relinquish the opportunity to guide prospective buyers on to the next purchase, er, listening experience don’t you think?