Between the release of his superb new album, So Beautiful Or So What, and the 40th anniversary re-release of Bridge Over Troubled Water, his last album as the songwriting half of Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon is giving us a good long look at his once and future self. Is it any surprise that he holds up quite well under the scrutiny?
Part of my problem with Bridge Over Troubled Water was that when I got around to it (sometime in the mid-Seventies) I’d pretty much lost my taste for well-scrubbed commercial folk-pop, and the epic title track was already vying with “Imagine” for designation as Most Overplayed Inspirational Song. The screechy strings on the big finale still do unpleasant things to my fillings.
But once you get past the three hit singles that loom at the start of side one — “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “El Condor Pasa,” and “Cecilia” — Bridge Over Troubled Water is surprisingly spry and light on its feet, with a sense of humor that points to Simon’s first solo albums. Bookends has always been the S&G album I return to most often, if only because it was the first recording that allowed glints of humor and wit to break through the clenched grad-school seriousness of their first three records: before that, their idea of lightening things up was “A Simple Desultory Phillippic,” a joke as leaden as its title. But “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied” kick things into higher gear while keeping their tongues firmly in cheek.
There are also three coded songs that forecast the breakup of S&G, and the best of them, “The Only Living Boy in New York,” stands with some of the best work Paul Simon ever recorded. Even if you didn’t know “Tom” was the codeword for Art Gurfunkel (he and Simon initially performed as Tom and Jerry) you’d know you were getting a glimpse into the mixed emotions of a working friendship, with its mingling of pride in the partner’s accomplishments (in this case, Garfunkel flying to Mexico to film Catch-22 with Mike Nichols) undercut by the other partner’s faint resentment at being left out. Even the recording itself plays into the feeling: Simon singing by himself, with Garfunkel’s ethereal harmonies floating somewhere overhead, a perfect blend of style and content.
On the value-added side, the 40th anniversary edition includes a DVD with “Songs of America,” a 1969 curio that aired once in 1969. I won’t say it should have been left to the bootleggers, but its very much a Sixties antique, both in its format (traveling landscape shots intercut with glimpses of Simon and Garfunkel at work and on stage) and its content (glimpses of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as reminders of what was lost). A specially made documentary, “The Harmony Game,” has plenty of nice tidbits about the recording of Bridge Over Troubled Water — if, like me, you always wondered about the instrumental break on “The Boxer,” know that it was a blend of high trumpet and pedal steel guitar.
As for So Beautiful Or So What, it is indeed all the evidence you need of Simon’s continued creative fire. Not that there was anything wrong with You’re the One or Surprise, but if this turns out to be Paul Simon’s career valediction, we can say he went out on a high note. It isn’t as immediately accessible as, say, Simon’s first solo album, which remains one of the greatest pop records in history, but its offhanded, relaxed charms get through. If “The Only Living Boy in New York” is a great song about friendship, “Dazzling Blue” is a great one about marriage.