Bridge Over Troubled Water was one of the biggest-selling albums of its decade, and it hasn't fallen too far down on the list in years since. Apart from the gospel-flavored title track, which took some evolution to get to what it finally became, however, much of Bridge Over Troubled Water also constitutes a stepping back from the music that Simon & Garfunkel had made on Bookends -- this was mostly because the creative partnership that had formed the body and the motivation for the duo's four prior albums literally consumed itself in the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. And, ironically, it all grew out of events that went back more than two years, to the hookup between Simon & Garfunkel and film director Mike Nichols on the movie The Graduate. The creative contact between Paul Simon and Nichols had yielded one monster hit ("Mrs. Robinson") and some rejections from the film ("Overs," "Punky's Dilemma"), and also a soundtrack that had greatly broadened the duo's audience; and it had introduced would-be actor Art Garfunkel to Nichols. And, suddenly, Garfunkel was involved in the shooting of Nichols' Catch-22, which took up most of his time for the better part of a year, and Simon was left to his own devices during his partner's absences. Thus, the close collaboration between the two, which had existed in this phase of their lives since 1965, was frayed not just at the edges but down to its very core. The very idea of a concept album such as Bookends had been, even if a concept could have been suggested, was thus out of the question.
As it turned out, absent anything as powerful as the sustained first side of Bookends, much of the resulting material here is fine, albeit relatively lightweight: "Baby Driver" with its Jan & Dean-style harmonies and early-'60s rock & roll beat; the upbeat "Cecelia," utilizing the largest array of percussion ever heard on a Simon & Garfunkel song; the live rendition of the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love"; and the reggae beat of "Why Don't You Write Me." Moreover, it was possible to discern a recurring theme on Bridge Over Troubled Water, but this was much more a reflection of the condition of the partnership than a conscious artistic statement -- where Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme had been built around middle-class teen and post-teen zeitgeist, and Bookends focused on the joys and dangers of growing old, Bridge Over Troubled Water had songs that quietly betrayed the fissures in the partnership: "The Only Living Boy in New York" was Simon's personal account of the isolation he felt on a creative level over Garfunkel's extended absence; "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" was a memorial to the architect, written for Garfunkel to sing, but it could just as easily be thought of as a farewell to his longtime collaborator Garfunkel (who had aspirations of being an architect); even "Why Don't You Write Me" was a song about lack of communication that seemed to slot into the division between the two partners.
Bridge Over Troubled Water had a lot more in common with the Beatles' Let It Be album than with any prior Simon & Garfunkel release -- except that Simon, in reaching to the bottom of his song bag, along with Garfunkel and producer/engineer Roy Halee, in applying their arranging skills in this dire situation, came up with a transcendent album. The title track was the best example; by some accounts, Garfunkel had insisted that Simon sing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on first hearing it. The piece evolved in their hands, however, and ultimately benefited from what many regard as the best recorded vocal performance of Garfunkel's career. Similarly, "The Only Living Boy in New York" was an obviously deeply personal song, but Garfunkel managed to add an extraordinary accompaniment to the composer's lead vocal. And there were places where the two were on the same page from the get-go, such as "El Condor Pasa." The overall effect was perhaps the most delicately textured album to close out the 1960s from any major rock act. Comparing other farewells of the same era, either to partnerships or the decade, the Beatles' Let It Be was a flawed, threadbare representation of the group's work, and the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, which marked the last musical contributions of Brian Jones and their last new work for their old label, was a nasty, unsettling statement. Bridge Over Troubled Water, at its most ambitious and bold, on its title track, was a quietly reassuring album; at other times, it was personal yet soothing, and at other times, it was just plain fun.
The public in 1970 -- a very unsettled time politically, socially, and culturally -- embraced it, and whatever mood they captured, the songs matched the standard of craftsmanship that had been established on the duo's two prior albums. Between the record's overall quality and its four hits -- "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "The Boxer" (which had been recorded and released prior to the LP), "El Condor Pasa," and "Cecelia," which kept the duo on the AM airwaves for months -- the album held the number one position for two and a half months and spent years on the charts, racking up sales in excess of five million copies. It also managed to cross over between segments of the audience that the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and others seldom reached -- siblings from teens to early thirties bought it, and teenagers and their parents alike loved different parts of the record. The songs were widely covered by artists in virtually every category, and the entire LP's worth of material was rethought in a jazz vein by Paul Desmond on A&M Records. The irony was that for all of the record's and the music's appeal, the duo itself -- the partnership -- ended in the course of creating and completing the album. [The August 2001 remastering of Bridge Over Troubled Water is the first-ever CD version of the album that sounds good -- properly mastered off of what sounds like the real first-generation tapes, it lives up to the expectations that one had for this record on CD. Neither of the two additional bonus tracks adds significantly to the record, although the demo of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" does give a hint of the song's evolution.] ~ Bruce Eder