‘I looked at the scenery, she read her magazine’: the circle of life in Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bookends’

‘Preserve your memories / They’re all that’s left of you’; it is with these words that the titular theme of Bookends leaves us. Despite coming out more than half a century ago, Simon & Garfunkel’s fourth studio album is miraculously just as relevant today than it was in 1968. The album managed to catch a weird, unstable thing that is hard to understand and even harder to put into words: real life. Simon, as the main lyricist, sings of life as he knows it, and somehow manages to always sound like an outsider to it at the same time. This is an album of reflection, of moments sang in the present that belong to both past and future — and it is through this particular position that it becomes so special.

Everyone has a different approach to music. Some find more things to like in the technical side of it, the notes, the chords, the instruments, the genre, the vocal qualities of the singer, the careful dissection of what makes an album great on a musical level. Others may find themselves more drawn to lyricism, to emotion, to feelings. There is value in both of these approaches, and they can certainly change from album to album. In Bookends, it is however hard to deny that the narrative is the main star. Of course, that is not to say that the album does not have its moments of musical euphoria. However, the folk strings that range from frailty to aggressiveness, Simon’s delicate voice, the synthesizers and drums that occasionally make themselves louder — all of these are firmly subordinated to the narrative. This makes the result all the more compelling, a complete production not only of an era, but of life itself and its strangest beats. The duo doesn’t pretend to know what it all means, and that’s perfectly fine. Their honesty makes Bookends extremely special to listen to. We’re lost, but they’re lost too — they’re just a little bit better at expressing it than we are.

The album opens on ‘Bookends’, a short, quiet instrumental track, immediately counterbalanced by the explosion that is ‘Save the Life of my Child’. The song oddly blends happy sounds with a deeply cynical theme. This story of a young boy about to commit public suicide is told at a safe distance; the same one that both the newspapers that will talk about the event and the direct witnesses seem to adopt. They may ask themselves ‘what’s becoming of the children’, but no one in the song seems to particularly try to help them. Bookends starts with both youth and death, a contradictory duo that is easiest to ignore for most, but that Simon & Garfunkel have decided to confront us with immediately.

‘America’ moves away into adulthood — but only in appearance. The tale of Simon and his girlfriend Kathy’s roadtrip through America lets childhood slip through the cracks more often than once. ‘Laughing on the bus / Playing games with the faces / She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy / I said “Be careful his bowtie is really a camera”’: it is when their childish side comes out that the two young lovers are happiest. While they’re looking for America, they’re looking for many things — the moments where they find each other seem to answer a question they didn’t even know had been asked. The guitars are decidedly calmer than in the previous song, beautifully accompanying both the euphoric and overwhelming feelings that characterize the search for one’s self. In the span of three and a half minutes, we get surprisingly involved in a journey that ends bitterly. Once we realize that the couple’s search for identity has made them drift apart from one another, there is no turning back. ‘Overs’ definitely brings an end to the relationship: ‘We’re just a habit / Like saccharin’, concludes Simon, who perhaps takes his first real steps into the adult world by putting an end to a relationship that doesn’t bring anything to either side anymore.

After a ‘Voices of Old People’ interlude (which is exactly what the title makes it sound like it is), we make a big jump in time with ‘Old Friends’, the album’s most quietly devastating song. Reflecting on mortality without sounding absolutely miserable is no easy task, but thankfully the song manages to feel sincere rather than performative. It is such a strange thing, to be young and to know you’re going to die someday — just in a very long time. Not only you, but the people around you too. There’s something terrifying about imagining you and your best friend still so close in fifty years, and something equally frightening about imagining life without them. ‘Old Friends’ encapsulates all these feelings and many more with such care that it is hard not to get affected. The age-old image of two old men sitting on a park bench becomes something much bigger and bitterly relatable. Perhaps is it the song that best defines the album’s purpose: to observe the particular to find the meaning in the general.

The return of the ‘Bookends’ theme launches us into the second half of the album. We slightly go back in time with ‘Fakin’ It’, a short and triumphant folk rock insight into the all too common feeling of not quite making it as much as we’d like to think we should. What is often nowadays characterized as a typically millenial anxiety has truly proven itself to be true across all generations of young people — and even the adults we’re supposed to look up to rarely have as much figured out as we’d like to think we do. There’s something shamefully sweet about celebrating a feeling we’re supposed to hide — and indeed, the second half of Bookends leans quite often on the optimistic side, although it is sometimes only in appearance.

The childishness that had been repressed in ‘Old Friends’ resurfaces at full power in the most delightful way in ‘Punky’s Dilemma’. While the song is not the most remarkable on the album, there’s something incredibly charming about hearing Simon not reflect on mortality and lost love but comparing himself to a Kellogg’s cornflake and a muffin. Even in more serious songs like ‘Mrs. Robinson’ which has a definite and quite explicit political side to it (the original title of the song being ‘Mrs. Roosevelt’), the rhythm and tone remain so joyous and bright that we can only sing along.

But youth is but a moment in time — and just like that we are thrown back into ‘A Hazy Shade of Winter’. The strings become more aggressive, Simon’s voice more confrontational. Time has passed, but this time he’s not at peace with it. It was only yesterday that he was gleefully singing to Mrs. Robinson in the springtime — but now winter is here, and it’s time to go. Before leaving us, the duo make one last stop in youthful territory in the album’s final song ‘At the Zoo’. This time around, the silliness of saying that giraffes are ‘insincere’ and that pigeons ‘plot in secrecy’ does make us smile, but perhaps a little less candidly. Of course, it’d be sweeter if we could go back to these times — but as far as we know, winter is still just around the corner. Bookends ends where it started, but we certainly don’t feel the same way that we did back in the first song. Despite being only 29 minutes long, it feels like we’ve just gone through an entire life. Thankfully, in this case, we can press the replay button as many times as we want — that is, until winter catches up again.

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@apocalliepse has a lot to say about media and not much to say about artichokes. Which is why you won’t find anything about them here.

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