Album Assignments: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Art Garfunkel’s name has become a bit of a punchline. “Garfunkel” is now pretty much synonymous with “second banana”. And fair enough, Paul Simon wrote almost all the original songs, played the guitar, and arranged a lot of the music (with the critical exception of the vocal harmonies.) There’s no question that Paul Simon was the dominant force in the duo.

But to listen to Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme is to be reminded of the irreplaceable magic that Garfunkel brought to the table. Really, we need look no further than the opening track, “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”. Garfunkel’s voice over Simon’s guitar fingerpicking immediately takes us into the mystic, a spooky intimacy with its shroud over both the present and the distant past, as he sings the centuries-old ballad words. There’s a huge amount of space around his voice, like he’s singing in a cathedral, and his perfect and breathy tone provides the appropriate spiritual hush. Simon comes in later, initially harmonizing but quickly diving into “Canticle”, weaving its anti-war theme around the ancient words. Meanwhile, Garfunkel’s voice gets multi-tracked into a heavenly choir, as well as floating over the top with pieces of “Canticle.” There is simply no way this glorious song could have been anywhere near as beautiful without Garfunkel’s haunting voice.

That goes double for his peak on the album, “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her.” It’s everything “Scarborough Fair” would be if Simon were removed, leaving just the mystical, exquisite innocence. “What a dream I had,” the song begins, and Garfunkel’s voice makes it feel like a dream, in a way that is just not in Paul Simon’s vocal capabilities. It’s the kind of dream where you struggle to express what it felt like, falling onto sensory metaphors like “crinoline of smoky burgundy” and “cathedral bells tripping down the alleyways”, but what you know is that in the dream, there is someone with whom you share a pure and perfect love. When she arrives, just walking with her and holding her hand is the greatest emotional elevation you’ve ever felt. And then you wake up, your real-life love is there by your side, and the rush of gratitude you feel moves you to tears.

Art Garfunkel singing, “Oh, I love you” at the end of this song was, for years, the nearest expression I’d ever heard of what love feels like. With the benefit of time, I now know that it is in fact a near-perfect expression of what young, new love feels like, but when I listen to “For Emily,” that feeling returns to add both depth and sparkle to a longstanding romantic partnership, even if just for two minutes. That is a pretty wonderful musical achievement, and I don’t believe Simon could have pulled it off so successfully without Garfunkel.

Album cover for Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

Now, I don’t mean this to be a hit piece on Paul Simon, who I absolutely adore. I was just struck this time by just how valuable Garfunkel’s presence on this record truly is, and how easy it’s become to dismiss him as some kind of backup singer, in the light of the two men’s post-1970 careers. Garfunkel is in fact a crucial part of why this duo is so beloved, on a level surpassing even Simon’s extraordinary solo accomplishments. His ability to bring Simon’s music to gorgeous life is unparalleled. Take, for example, “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”. It’s a fun little ditty, kinda giddy and almost exuberant, but when Garfunkel comes in to harmonize on the last thirty seconds of “ba da da da” vocalizations, we move from a light sense of fun to a profound feeling of joy, or at least I do.

“Feelin’ Groovy” is also a shining example of another aspect of this 1966 album, which is that some of it feels really 1966 at this point. Like, “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” is a sendup of advertising and consumerism, which is still plenty relevant, but dilemmas like “all the hippies seem to get the jump on you” and your boss telling you to “find a more productive bag”… not so much. Similarly, “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)” has about as much currency as the Jared Kushner joke in Deadpool 2 will have in 50 years. On the other hand, as a satirical document of its time, Paul Simon doing his Dylan impression and muttering “folk rock!” (then fumbling his harmonica) at the end is still worth a giggle. Also, the swipe at hip ignorance (“He’s so unhip, when you say Dylan he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever he was”) still has bite.

However, though some of the album’s references feel quite dated by now, its final track, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night”, has become even more devastating with the passage of time. There’s of course the contrast of one of the world’s sweetest harmonies singing a quiet and hallowed Christmas carol, slowly being drowned out by the grim news of the day, and that contrast still lands, but now it is itself drowned out by how much worse the current news feels, pretty much systematically on all points. Just a quick tour:

  • President Johnson proposes an outright ban on all housing discrimination in the open housing section of the Civil Rights Bill, but these noble sentiments are hobbled when “a compromise was painfully worked out in the House Judiciary Committee”: Ha! Remember when congressional committees would work out painful compromises in aid of getting legislation passed? How about the notion of a president who is an activist on behalf of social justice?
  • Lenny Bruce dies from an overdose of narcotics: Prince. Tom Petty. But not just celebrities — an ongoing national emergency of opioid addiction and death.
  • MLK refuses to cancel his plans for an open housing march in a Chicago suburb: Hey, how about that, a moral leader whose activism captures tons of media attention and prompts massive social upheaval! Today’s moral leaders are… people who express indignation on Twitter, I guess? This can be very effective, witness #metoo, but the 24-hour news cycle makes it also rather evanescent. For that matter, the very idea of impartial journalistic authority suggested by the sober 7 O’Clock News anchor was so thoroughly replaced by news-as-personality, news-as-entertainment, and news-as-meme that Russian trolls were able to undermine a democratic election through propaganda pieces disguised as news.
  • Richard Speck stabs and strangles nine student nurses: Oh, a mass murder. Yeah, we get a lot of that now too, so much so that they really don’t seem so shocking anymore. I have a friend who in 2014 started contacting his congressional representative every time there was a mass shooting. He’s now done so 67 times.
  • Congress investigates anti-Vietnam War protests. Nixon warns there could be five more years of war. (There were actually nine.) He calls opposition to the war “the greatest single weapon working against the U.S.”: We’ve been at war for seventeen years. Opposition and protests are… I’m gonna say nonexistent at this point? And the greatest single weapon working against the U.S. is sitting in the Oval Office.

It’s a deeply depressing litany, when you really think about it. (Especially since I didn’t even mention the whole “climate change catastrophes have begun and we’re doing very little to stop them from continuing to escalate” part.) One of the few cures is the type of spiritual renewal you get from listening to something truly sacred, so it’s a damn good idea to listen to this album on repeat.

One thought on “Album Assignments: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme

  1. Pingback: Album Assignments: Middle Cyclone – >SUPERVERBOSE

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