Simon and Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water
I have a challenge for my readers. It is in two parts, and each part is a question. For each question, the challenge is to say the first thing you think of. Don’t think hard about your answers; that defeats the purpose. “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. Ready?
1. Name a cover version of Bridge Over Troubled Water. If you are my friend Boyhowdy, this is probably easy. But for the rest of us, this is next to impossible. Why?
Because Art Garfunkel, with his soaring vocal, created the perfect performance of Paul Simon’s words. And because the production perfectly emphasizes Garfunkel’s strengths as a singer.
2. Name three hits that Art Garfunkel had as a solo artist. Once again, most of us draw blanks. How can this be? How could this happen to the owner of that voice? And this is not a trick question. Garfunkel did have hits, and plenty of them. But, whereas Bridge Over Troubled Waters is a classic, none of Garfunkel’s solo hits have stood the test of time.
The seeming contradiction between the results of these two questions is the crux of the Art Garfunkel problem. Garfunkel can be an amazing singer. But Garfunkel can also be his own worst enemy.
That voice is a distinct high tenor, There is never a wrong note. The voice is pure, with no scratch or grab. Garfunkel can sound angelic or passionless, depending on the production and the choice of material. His voice can be beautiful and distinctive; it can also disappear into wash of smooth sound. Sometimes, both of these happen at the same time.
Through the years, Art Garfunkel has displayed poor artistic judgment when left to his own devices. He delivers a version of a well known song, whose original version is a gem of emotional expression. Garfunkel’s version washes out the personality of the original, and the production, featuring thick layers of strings and other techniques to smooth the sound out, leave the song sounding passionless. The listener is left yearning for the original.
But Bridge Over Troubled Water really works. What sets it apart? It is a full production, but not an overwhelming one. Given how easy it is too make a bad Art Garfunkel recording, what are they elements of a good one?
The first thing that has to happen is the matching of the singer to the song. Garfunkel isn’t going to give you a gritty performance with emotional highs and lows. If the words of the song do so, the production should emphasize the tension between the performance and the words. Garfunkel can also deliver a calm reassurance, or an earnest declaration of love, but this is an enduring love that has already lasted a while, not the disconcerting power of first love. Strong outbursts of negative emotions are not his strong point, but a cold passionless anger is a possibility for him. Fascination and wonder are states that Garfunkel can do well.
For production, Garfunkel needs room for his voice to breathe. It is a mistake to surround him with to much sweetener. A spare arrangement often puts his voice in a better light. He blends well with other voices, or with an instrumental line played on a single instrument. Bridge Over Troubled Water begins as a simple arrangement, and the arrangement becomes fuller as the emotion swells; this obviously works as well.
Art Garfunkel: She Moved Through the Fair
She Moved Through the Fair is a traditional song. Garfunkel’s version was recorded with the Chieftains, who provide a spare sympathetic background.
Art Garfunkel: Scissors Cut
Aside from his work with Paul Simon, some of Garfunkel’s best work was on songs by Jimmy Webb. Even some of these were ruined by poor production choices, but when it worked, as it did on Scissors Cut, the results were well worth it. Webb’s writing, like Simon’s, provided the emotional depth that Garfunkel needed.
Art Garfunkel: Dreamland
Garfunkel’s voice is perfect for lullabies. Dreamland is a fine of example of how this can work. The song comes from the album From a Parent to a Child, which is just what it sounds like. Although there are some uneven spots, this may be Garfunkel’s most overlooked album.
Art Garfunkel: The Thread
Finally, I wanted to present an example of Garfunkel singing his own words. Coming in 2002, the album Everything Waits to be Noticed was the first, and still the only time this happened. On the album, Garfunkel teams up with Buddy Mondlock and Maia Sharp to create settings for his words which are smooth, but do not sound like sonic wallpaper.