Here in our second installation of our new series, Today In Bad Music Journalism, we bring you Rolling Stone‘s original review of Simon & Garfunkel’s final studio album, Bridge Over Troubled Water.
This series is not intended to mock or denigrate music journalists, even those who authored these reviews. It is the nature of the beast that critics are called upon to be critical, and subjective notions and other surrounding circumstances often lead critics of all arts to come down hard on something which later proved to be tremendously popular. It doesn’t mean the critic was wrong in their estimation. It simply means their judgment was far removed from that of the public at large, as seen over decades. That the greatest work can be thoroughly dismissed or worse by critics, as has been done repeatedly, is useful for all songwriters to understand. Everyone’s gotten bad reviews. Even those artists and songwriters we now consider to have a near-universal appeals, such as The Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel, were the recipients of some extreme denigration in print.
A significant example is the following review from 1970, in which songs from Bridge Over Troubled Water are described as “hopelessly mediocre.” The title song alone is a standard, and a pinnacle in the intersection of glorious melody with a poignant, healing lyric. The judgment is extreme due partially to the opinion itself, but also the skills of the writer, who declares such opinon as fact, that these songs are not simply weak or uninspired, but hopelessly so. Regardless of its accuracy, its effect stings more because of strong, vivid writing.
Now, all these decades since its season of creation, as the song “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” especially, has retained its timeless splendor with inspirational grandeur, it’s staggering to fathom how a music writer heard in this album a reason to give up hope. Especially given all the reasons for hopelessness about music that came to be, to hear mediocrity here seems remarkably unsound.
Another impetus for this series is, admittedly, that it’s a fun read. It’s entertaining, from our comfy perspective here in the future, to experience how wrong well-written criticism can be. There’s a bounty of examples in all art, from those written derisions of Beethoven, Chaplin, Picasso, The Great Gatsby, Catcher In The Rye, The Godfather, Frank Gehry and all the paintings of Jackson Pollock. In retrospect, these now seem ridiculously and obviously erroneous in the harshness of their judgments. But such is the job of the critic, a role which in these modern times has evolved profoundly. Is there still a place for such criticism, especially in our modern context of being able to hear all music before purchasing any? It’s a discussion worth having.
But for now, let’s revel in the abandon of these writers freely tearing into a songwriter’s flesh and soul; here’s Part II in our series, from the pages of Rolling Stone, 1970.
Review: Simon & Garfunkel,
Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Rolling Stone, May 14, 1970.
By Gregg Mitchell
“All the campus folkies were in a tizzy. The big day had finally arrived! After two years—two whole years—of waiting, they finally had a new Simon & Garfunkel album [Bridge Over Troubled Water] to mull over.
That the duo could only come up with 11 new songs in two years didn’t seem to bother those fans. That nearly all of those songs were hopelessly mediocre fazed them even less….
Creedence Clearwater Revival can do an album in three months and fill it with excellent material. Simon & Garfunkel take two years—and reveal that they have nearly wasted their time….
Only six of the album’s cuts are new. Thus, it is quite similar to their last album, Bookends, which also was made up largely of old singles, short instrumentals, etc.
Maybe Paul Simon has gotten fat and lazy. Maybe Arthur Garfunkel is devoting his time to acting or teaching. Whatever the cause, their music has gotten stale. The lyricism, drive and enthusiasm of Parsley, Sage etc., is gone. (p. 56)
The new album contains possibly their best song ever (“The Boxer”) and their worst, “Frank Lloyd Wright.” Of course, their many fans will be shocked to hear that S & G did not invent the bossa nova they utilize in the latter. (Simon, however, did invent the song’s trite lyrics).
The rest of the album lies somewhere in between these two extremes, though more of the songs are closer to “Frank Lloyd Wright” than “The Boxer.”… They are best on soft, melodic tunes (“Bridge”, “Song for the Asking”), where Simon’s occasionally perceptive lyrics come through.
Of course, the folkies loved it all, seeing in it “great originality” and “social comment.” Only trouble is, everything they play someone else has played before, and everything they say they’ve said before.
It’s really not that bad an album … but for two years’ work?”
By Gregg Mitchell, “Records: ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’,” in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970), Issue 58, May 14, 1970, pp. 56, 58.