Not counting their debut, Bookends was the last Simon & Garfunkel album I ever heard, mostly on the account of hearing nothing about it. The other three albums all opened with one of their biggest songs (“Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water”), and Bookends opens with … an instrumental. To make matters worse, the album’s first proper “song” seems to be one of the most maligned tracks in their discography, and the album’s most representative single – “Mrs. Robinson” – was one that I’ve never heard prior to hearing the album (whereas that’s untrue of the aforementioned singles from other albums). Damn shame, because Bookends is not only their second best album, it’s also their most ambitious; there’s a concept running through the album’s first side about growing up and growing old with a side dish of satire against the American Dream. Songs segue into one another effortlessly, regardless of how different they are, from the psychedelic rock of “Save the Life of My Child” to the folksy “America” to the quieter “Overs” to the field recording of “Voices of Old People” and back again for “Old Friends.”
But forget quality and ambition for a moment, because Bookends has a third important factor: a pervading influence on modern indie classics. If you’re ever listening to Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois or Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City (whereas Vampire Weekend’s other albums take after Paul Simon’s solo career) and wondering where these records came from, head immediately to “America,” one of their five best songs (and the album’s best). What begins as a romantic trip between two people (Kathy was also the name of Simon’s then-girlfriend) slowly becomes a snapshot of America in the late-60s, with its spiritual restlessness, to disillusionment of the American Dream and ending with one of the saddest lines you’ll ever hear: “’Kathy, I’m lost,’” I said though I knew she was sleeping / I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” In between these two points, Simon enters a brief bridge of Bob Dylan-like absurdity, “[Kathy] said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy / I said be careful his bowtie is really a camera.” Not only are the words deliciously poignant, they’re sung well, with Simon moving from a sing-whisper to a crescendo in all the right places (“I don’t know why”), while acoustic guitars, booming drums and a clarinet add color. Add this song with the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” on your “Listen-To-These-Songs-While-Smoking-Cigarettes-And-Figuring-Out-Where-It-All-Went-Wrong” playlist.
Back to “Save the Life of My Child,” I really enjoy the song – I remember listening to the album for the first time during a dish-washing session and when it came on, I had to double check my ipod thinking, “I swore I put a Simon & Garfunkel album on.” If the melody of the chorus sounds like a dry-run for “Keep the Customer Satisfied” to you, fine – ignore them and focus on what’s happening around them, from the interesting percussion sounds to the Jimi Hendrix-“Hey Joe”-esque backing vocals that slowly turns into a fatal cry to aurally demonstrate “the desperate mother.”
That being said, the rest of the first side ain’t much. The most interesting thing about “Overs” is the cigarette smoke that introduces it (that continues the narrator and Kathy’s search for nicotine-induced happiness in “America”), and back to Modern Vampires of the City, Ezra Koenig’s basically absorbed the New York Times bit from “Overs” and “Save the Life of My Child” and put it to better use on “Hannah Hunt.” But both “Overs” and “Old Friends” are the sort of stuff that will populate lesser Paul Simon solo albums later. Meanwhile, though I really do love allmusic’s Thom Jurek’s description of Garunkel-composed “Voices of Old People,” “disembodied voices reveal entire lifetimes in a few seconds,” it’s one of those “listen once and never again”-type deals. And the bookending “Bookends Themes” are pleasant trifles and nothing more.
But the second side offers five good to great songs. Most of the songs on the second side has heavy bass lines that you wouldn’t believe possible on a Simon & Garfunkel album until you’ve heard them; especially on the political allegory of “At the Zoo.” Meanwhile both “Fakin’ It” and “A Hazy Shade of Winter” have a circular riff driving the verses and catchy choruses. The former’s are pure ecstasy from danceable drums, bursts of horns and strings and just when you thought it couldn’t get more exciting, they elongate it all for the outro. (The bridge of this song is a much more woeful and dated attempt at psychedelia than “Save the Life of My Child.”) Elsewhere, “Mrs. Robinson” is even better; just as playful with the ad-libbing (“Dee-dee-dee”’s and “Coo-ca-choo”’s) and the rhythm. In addition to having the best melody on the album, there’s a huge biting satire in the song’s lyrics; that you can do bad things (like have an affair) but Jesus will love you and God will accept you into heaven so long as you pray. I’d mention a similar theme in Vampire Weekend’s “Ya Hey” but I think I’ve already talked about Modern Vampires of the Weekend enough.
The last thing I have to say is that Simon & Garfunkel are the rarest of artists: one where every album gets exponentially better than the last and one that knew called it quits at the right time and never got back together to make a comeback album. I’ll probably paste that onto my review of Bridge Over Troubled Water; just you wait.