by Jeff Fiedler
The most amazing thing about Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends – arguably the greatest full-length they ever released – is that it’s actually an odds-and-ends package compiling some stray singles that had yet to make it onto an LP, a few rejected songs Paul Simon had written for the Mike Nichols film The Graduate, and some brand-new material that had yet to find a home. Chalk part of that up to good luck, many of the songs thankfully exploring a lot of the same lyrical territory – namely, the theme of growing older (as explored on such songs as the title cut “Old Friends” and “A Hazy Shade of Winter”). The other crucial part of why it works as well as it does is the brilliance of the album’s sequencing, which seamlessly fuses many of the tracks and provides a context for tracks that might otherwise not work.
Side One is nearly a concept album in and of itself on the subject of aging and kicks off with a thirty-second instrumental snippet of the title track. (Fittingly enough, the full-length version of the song appears at the end of the same side, the two versions essentially serving as…well, bookends! Whether that was by design or pure coincidence, it’s a real stroke of genius.) The instrumental opening serves as a nice way to ease into the creepy synthesizer-laden intro of “Save the Life of My Child,” which amps up the dramatic intensity of the disc before fading into the world-weary balladry of “America.” From there, it’s a natural transition into the equally weary “Overs,” a meditation on a crumbling marriage. The next track, “Voices of Old People” is actually nothing more than a series of field recordings (made by Art Garfunkel) at retirement homes. On any other Simon and Garfunkel album, this track might stick out like a sore thumb – if not seem completely pretentious – but placed as it is midway through the first side of this particular album, it actually has the surprising effect of adding wonderfully to the mood and atmosphere of the record, even if you’re not likely to listen to it often in isolation from the remainder of the disc. “Voices of Old People” fittingly fades right into the chillingly beautiful ballad “Old Friends,” one of Paul Simon’s all-time prettiest melodies. (If the song itself isn’t enough to give you goosebumps, Jimmy Haskell’s beautiful string arrangement certainly will.) “Old Friends,” in turn fades directly into the full-length version of the title track. The songs go so perfectly together that most hits compilations by the duo that include “Old Friends” also include “Bookends” immediately afterwards (or even link the two together as a single track.)
Side Two is similarly nearly a whole of its own as well, rounding up several stray singles dating as far back as 1966. Even those singles, however, fit nicely into the album’s theme of aging, beginning with “Fakin’ It,” which looks back on an earlier life. (Fun trivia: because radio at the time would rarely play anything over three minutes, Paul Simon “faked it” and had the labels for the 45 tweaked to make the song’s 3:15 running time read “2:75” instead.) The Graduate outtake “Punky’s Dilemma” doesn’t fit quite as well lyrically into the rest of the album, but the lighthearted stroll of its music is well-placed in this particular slot on the disc, providing a nice segue into the equally breezy “Mrs. Robinson,” the duo’s biggest hit. (Oddly enough, while the soundtrack for The Graduate features two versions of the song, both are in the form of snippets, so Bookends actually marked the debut of the full-length version of this iconic film theme.) “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” previously a non-LP single from 1966, follows. Lyrically, it’s a perfect fit for this concept album, and the song’s driving tempo and ironically aggressive acoustic-guitar riff help provide a nice kick after the lazy vibe of the prior two cuts. Brilliantly, there is no extended pause separating the breathless ending of the song from the opening notes of the album’s closer, the sweeping “At the Zoo,” itself a non-LP single from 1967. Though the songs had never appeared back-to-back on a record before, the segue from “Winter” into “Zoo” is so perfect that most compilations similarly place the songs back-to-back. Paul and Art themselves would similarly make a point during their reunion tour of playing “A Hazy Shade of Winter” and “At the Zoo” as a medley with no break in between, which says volumes about just how well-loved the sequencing of this album is.