The most celebrated track on the biggest-selling album of the 1970s in Britain, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” has become a marbled standard and it’s hard to step back from that and listen to the thing. Maybe it’s useful to leave it in its immediate context and compare it to “Wan’drin Star”, especially as I’m about to give it the same mark.
Both are carefully arranged showcases for their singer. Both are slow, thoughtful records that work to capture a particular emotional frame of mind. Both dramatise that frame of mind using their arrangement: in “Star”, Lee Marvin sounds uncomfortable and impatient, keen to saddle up and be off down the trail again. In “Bridge”, the structure and arrangement hark back to earlier and ancient ways of religious comfort-giving, lending the recording the feel of a secular hymn. Oh, and both records botch it towards the end – Lee’s vocal goes completely off-track, and Simon and Garfunkel bring in the drums and love poetry, threatening to turn their austere statement of devotion into a particularly high-handed, passive-aggressive come-on.
There’s no question that “Bridge”, like “Sugar, Sugar”, is a supremely well-crafted record. The Archies track hides its craft, though, using it for the – perhaps sinister – purposes of getting you hooked on a dumb pop choon. “Bridge”‘s craft is obvious in every bar. The gradual introduction, interplay and build of piano, voice bass and drum is beat-perfect, with even Garfunkel’s (yes, very beautiful) voice ultimately another component to be precisely tweezerdropped into place. If I find this delicacy wearying, or oppressive, or even cold, that’s a reflection of the gap between what the record asks of its listener – concentration and solemnity – and what I’m prepared to give it. I never liked real hymns much, either.