Counterbalance No. 118: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’

Simon & Garfunkel
Bridge Over Troubled Water

Klinger: In the two-plus years we’ve been embarked on this fool’s crusade to discuss the most acclaimed albums of all-time (as compiled by the mathmagician over at the aptly named and highly addictive Acclaimed Music website), we’ve covered more than a few break-up albums, those wrenching chronicles of love gone wrong and valiant attempts to pick up the pieces in the aftermath. I’m pretty sure, though, that Simon & Garfunkel’s 1970 blockbuster Bridge Over Troubled Water is our first LP that focuses primarily on the break-up of a professional relationship — and certainly the only one to do so before the split is even officially announced. But references to Paul and Art’s impending dissolution are scattered all throughout the record in one form or another.

Like a lot of people, I’ve headed back into Bridge Over Troubled Water on those occasions when romance goes pear-shaped, so maybe that’s why it took me a while to realize that so much of it was based on a different kind of loss. But it’s also such a big-sounding album, with its lush orchestrations and slick production, that it’s easy to lose sight of the intimacy that’s at its core.

Mendelsohn: There is definitely a push and pull to this record that epitomizes the struggles between Simon and Garfunkel as they started to go in different directions, personally, professionally, and, maybe most important for me, musically. I never really viewed Bridge Over Troubled Water as a break up album, although, as you noted, the strains of dissolving artistic relationship is couched in every nook and cranny of the hushed tones and the overt bombast that makes up one of the best-selling records of all time.

Klinger: Yes, buried way deep into the nooks and crannies. So much so that it’s easy to miss some of them. I only recently learned that right at the end of “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright” you can hear Simon deliver a heartfelt “So long, Artie!” to his departing friend. And that in turn suggests a new layer of meaning to the lyrics (Did Paul just refer to himself as the architect? Did Art realize this when he sang it?)

Plus I had a head-slapping moment when I finally figured out that the “Tom” at the beginning of “The Only Living Boy in New York” refers to Art, the Tom to Paul’s Jerry from their early years together. (I know, duh.)

Mendelsohn: Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Now that song makes a lot more sense, especially when you apply it to Garfunkel, who was spending half of his time on his acting career.

Klinger: True, Art was heading out to act in Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Catch-22 (so his “part will go fine”). It turns out that there was originally supposed to be a role for Simon as well, but it was cut from the script. Garfunkel recently went on record as saying that this was the final nail in the S&G coffin—and that we are free to infer that Mike Nichols is at least partly to blame.

Mendelsohn: As fun as it is to parse Simon’s lyrical intentions, I was always a bit fascinated by the jump in songwriting that Paul Simon made on this record. Up to this point in their career, Paul and Art had been pushing a folk-ified version of the Everly Brothers. Not that there is anything wrong with that—I am a huge fan of Don and Phil, but you don’t get from something like “Homeward Bound” to “You Can Call Me Al”, without a little work and exploration.

Bridge Over Troubled Water acts as that sign post, not only showing Simon a way to become a better songwriter but pushing him in the direction that would lead to an album like Graceland. The Everly Brothers influence is still all over this record—I mean, they cover “Bye Bye Love”, but on the other side of the spectrum is Simon’s first steps toward exploring and incorporating world music with “El Condor Pasa”. It also sets up Simon’s long running tradition of prodigiously “borrowing” music for his own uses and then sometimes getting sued for it, but then imitation is the greatest form of flattery, isn’t it?

Klinger: Well, there is a good amount of exploration on Bridge Over Troubled Water, but I think it also has a certain almost bombastic quality in places that makes me miss their simpler efforts (for the record, I’m a Sounds of Silence man myself—¡Viva gloom!). The orchestrations on the title track, the horn arrangements on “Keep the Customer Satisfied”, even the strings at the end of “The Boxer” have a weird tendency to take me out of the songs themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I love all three of those, but there are times when the album almost starts to sound like a Ray Conniff record in its borderline overproduced feel. Still, the sheer number of hits—and the sense that this was the last we’d be hearing from the duo — are likely what’s placed Bridge Over Troubled Water first among their albums.

Mendelsohn: You are not alone in feeling a bit put off by the overproduction. I too find myself either gravitating toward early Simon & Garfunkel’s dulcet folk stylings over the Technicolor sound blasts that pop up in odd spaces on Bridge Over Troubled Water. But as soon as I say that, I remember how much I love “Baby Driver”, and how much the production, the addition of Simon making those little car noises and the fantastic horn break, makes that song pop off the wax. If anything, I think it is a testament about this duo’s ability to move in two seemingly different directions, reveling in the over-produced bombast and then turning around in the next breath and tempering that with a steely restraint that never feels forced—well, except maybe that part in “The Only Living Boy in New York” where they fade the backing track a little too hard and a little too fast. Other than that, can you point out any flaws?

Klinger: Well, apart from the quibblings I’ve already mentioned I can’t think of too much. Who knows, maybe including “Cuba Si, Nixon No”, the song that escalated many of the tensions that were bubbling under the surface during the latter days of Simon and Garfunkel’s partnership, might have tilted the album one way or another.

The story goes that Simon was keen to record the song but Garfunkel fought hard to keep it off the record. I’d been hearing that story for years and always assumed, based on the title, that it was some overly earnest “protest” song that probably sounded like “El Condor Pasa” strident, college-freshman denunciations of the Nixon administration. Turns out, based on this live version, that it’s a punchy little Chuck Berry-styled number. Combining that with other up-tempo tracks like “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied” would have made Bridge Over Troubled Water far and away the rockingest Simon & Garfunkel album in the catalog (“rocking” being an extremely relative term where Simon & Garfunkel is concerned, of course.)

Mendelsohn: I’m going to disagree slightly with that but only so I can poke at semantics for a minute or two. The only real thing that makes Bridge Over Troubled Water rock harder than any other Simon & Garfunkel records is the simple fact that they piled on a bit more production. Here’s the thing about most of Simon & Garfunkel’s catalog: most of it rocks—at least it would if they weren’t plucking their guitars softly and whispering into the microphone. And I know, that sounds silly but they wrote some great songs that would rock (and do) with the simple addition of an electric guitar, and maybe a rock ‘n’ roll howl or two.

But I think that was the idea. Simon and Garfunkel were writing rock ‘n’ roll within the constraints that was Simon & Garfunkel. There are only a couple tracks on this record that don’t have the innate ability to rock and they bookend a group of songs that could have rocked much more in a different place and time. That’s the beauty of Simon & Garfunkel’s work, especially when it comes to Bridge Over Troubled Water. Paul and Art were treading this fine line, walking a tight rope as the winds of change whipped around them and they persevered long enough to create an indelible work of art that set them apart from the rest of the field at a time when rock was stumbling headlong into hard-charging excess of the 1970s.

Klinger: That’s true—it is a short jog from relatively basic folk chord progressions to rock ‘n’ roll, and I think that’s partly why we can look at Bridge Over Troubled Wateras a long last look around before Paul and Artie closed up shop. You have the simpler numbers that reference their past (the cover of “Bye Bye Love” most notably) mixed with the global experimentation and complex chords that marked Simon’s songwriting going forward and helped set the scene for the singer-songwriter movement that was to come. Like I said before, Bridge Over Troubled Water isn’t my favorite Simon & Garfunkel album, but it might be the most representative of its time. Plus the cover photo makes it look like Garfunkel has a big gaucho mustache. I am very much in favor of that.