The music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, with their trademark acoustic folk-rock sound and exquisite harmonic vocals, represents some of the best-known and best-loved songs of the 1960s – a period of considerable innovation and creativity, of which they were central movers. The two New York boys, both from Jewish ancestry, established themselves as the poetic voices of American popular music and culture, following Bob Dylan and inspiring generations of musicians and fans ever since.
This box set brings together the duo’s five studio albums, plus the greatest hits and various live recordings, some from the 1960s when the pair still recorded together, and others from later years when they reunited for live performances.
It’s interesting to listen to the studio albums chronologically. It started in 1964 with Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m., which is undoubtedly not their strongest work but nevertheless an indication of what was to come. The simple arrangement of Benedictus is a showcase for their close vocal harmonics, and the earliest evidence of how religiously-inspired music would sometimes become part of their sound. It also features the original recording of The Sound of Silence, with none of the strong driving percussion that found its way onto the best-known version on their second album, Sounds of Silence. Paul Simon’s genius for lyrics and song-writing, and Garfunkel’s haunting lead vocals on The Sound of Silence was a blueprint for their enduring success.
This collection also features the soundtrack to the iconic Mike Nichols movie The Graduate, to which Simon and Garfunkel provided some key songs, including Mrs Robinson, named after the Anne Bancroft character. The film would also come to define the 1960s of America and the west, and launched Dustin Hoffman to meteoric heights; but undeniably The Graduate, and Simon and Garfunkel’s accompanying songs, will always define and transcend the era. Incidental music from David Grusin is also included.
Everyone has their favourite Simon and Garfunkel song, but for us, the best emerged in their studio work after The Graduate, with the concept album Bookends, detailing the human life-cycle, providing the most unified and thoughtful sound to that point. There’s the pleading Save the Life of My Child, and the attempt to understand the passage of time in the sublime A Hazy Shade of Winter. Their next album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, with the achingly beautiful piano on the title track, arguably took the duo to an even higher level. The Boxer, with its elegantly repeated refrain whilst the accompaniment swirls to a climax, is a stunning achievement, as is the quiet power of The Only Living Boy in New York. So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright is Paul Simon’s assessment of where his partnership with Art Garfunkel (who had studied architecture) had taken them, and why it was time to call it a day. It’s self-referential, without ever alienating the audience. Simon and Garfunkel went out with a bang.
There remains the four live albums (with Old Friends Live On Stage a double CD). The acoustic nature of their music, which has never been over-produced, leaves Simon and Garfunkel sounding fantastic live. Their major strengths are Simon’s lyricism and melodies, with Garfunkel’s stunning vocals – the perfect recipe for engaging an audience. Indeed, for some of the songs, such as For Emil, Whenever I May Find Her, featuring Garfunkel’s phenomenal voice, the live track takes on an even greater emotional quality than the studio version (on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme). The Concert in Central Park was recorded in 1981, over a decade after their split, and Old Friends (in which the in-between song banter between the two is affectionate, as they have come to terms with their artistic differences) sees more mature performers playing in 2004 for the sheer joy of it.
This box set is extremely attractively presented. Each of the eleven albums is contained within a card slip case that retains the original vinyl cover art. This is a good move, since the box is less than two inches thick, saving shelf space, and the individual albums are just about thick enough to enable you to read the names on the spines. Since there was far more space to play with on vinyl, the compressed wording leaves much of it illegible to anyone with less than 20/20 vision. However, a booklet is enclosed which provides Bud Scoppa’s assessment of Simon and Garfunkel’s canon and legacy, as well as the track listing and credits for each album.
A major plus point of this release is that the sound quality is excellent, which is especially noticeable on the studio albums. Simon and Garfunkel have never sounded better. If you’re a fan, this release is a must for your collection. It may well be time to invest in the complete back catalogue of albums from two of the major musicians of the Twentieth Century.