As you may or may not be aware, the bit with Friday Flash Reviews is that the TNOCS.com admin picks a category and the community votes up the song they want reviewed within said category.
This week’s voting category was “The absolute best, deep cut Simon & Garfunkel song.”
The community must not be primarily British as “America” reached all the way up to 25 on the UK Singles chart in 1972 (the first time they released it as a B-side in 1968, it didn’t chart anywhere).
But I suppose it fits the criteria of a “deep cut” in the States, despite the fact that it cracking the Billboard Hot 100, as it only reached #97. Given its continual utility ranging from being used in movies, political campaigns, and commercials over the decades, it’s a bit surprising that it only reached #97 in hindsight.
Something I did not expect to report when I started researching this song is that the band Yes’ truly wild cover of “America” eclipsed Simon & Garfunkel’s chart reach by scaling all the way up to #47 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the same year.
Wait, the Yes cover more than doubled the Billboard ranking of the original?
Yeah, baby. I know you’re curious. Wanna taste of something weird? As long as you promise you’re sitting down and mellow like jell-o, here’s the (relatively-tame-compared-to-the-sprawling-10-minute-album-version) radio edit of Yes’ take on “America:”
Not going to lie: I feel the need for a mint (or maybe a listen to the original track) to cleanse my palate of that cover.
The Friday Flash “Gut Take” Review:
I’m not sure if there’s any three-and-a-half minute piece of music that so earnestly, ineffably, timelessly, and efficiently captures the angsty, communally lonely essence of (young, white, and middle class) America.
I think it’s worth breaking down each adjective used above to better explain the power on display here:
- Earnest: Though the narrator does come off as whimsical in some moments (“Be careful, his bowtie is really a camera”), we learn soon enough that these moments of whimsy are in fact distractions (“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why”).
- Ineffable: While “America” paints a clear picture of a young couple on a bus, it simultaneously paints a much broader picture of how this young couple — and by implication everyone on the bus and likely beyond — is in fact trapped by deep levels of existential ennui.
- Timeless: What’s really stunning is that this song was written back in late 1960s, yet the dynamics at play felt just as relevant to me when I was in my 20s as they do now that I’m in my 50s. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
- Efficient: The song is only 3½ minutes, yet it somehow crams five verses into that time. This gives “America” the ability to look at a single scene and analyze it from multiple angles, and reveal something new about the narrator in each verse.
And, yeah, about those adjectives:
they’re only describing the friggin’ lyrics. There’s also an entire music track behind these stunning lyrics that delivers pretty stunning sonic presence and dynamics to the table for a song released in 1968. Timeless certainly applies to the music, too.
“America” is a unique and truly special song: it connects a simple story to a complicated message to a potent musical track in ways that few songs ever have.
In-a-Flash score: 10/10
The Friday Flash “Deep Dive” Review
The impossibly-clean acoustic guitars drive the groove, but they are punctuated by a host of different characters (and, yes, they sound like characters), in order of appearance: a cool-chorused electric guitar, “gated” tom-toms (likely actually recorded in a cathedral to get that effect), a Hammond organ, a bass guitar that prefers to play in its upper range, a full drum kit, and, of course, a soprano saxophone that, as apparently is the nature of the soprano saxophone, doesn’t mind competing with the vocalist for attention (more on that in the songwriting section).
The counterpoint that the “chorused” electric guitar brings in the beginning adds so much to the richness of the musical tapestry, as do the dramatic stabs of the tom-toms throughout the song.
And, of course, the organ helping build audible tension until full organ release in the final chorus gives the song a dramatically emphatic ending. Powerful stuff.
Atop of this cast of instrumental characters are the vocals, which are perfectly mixed such that every syllable can be understood in virtually any listening situation.
And this is clutch: this song is one of the most lyrically-driven songs written. The musical aspect of this song is simply a tapestry for the lyrics to live on.
Other than its folk-rock stylings, the specific Hammond organ sounds, and the obviously non-digital reverb/gating in the tom-toms, the production sounds remarkably clean and, dare I say, contemporary. It’s a joy to listen to quiet or loud, and it stands the test of time.
The good folks over at Hooktheory.com do analysis of songwriting, and of course they nail it: “America” represents some pretty special work being done in the songwriting department. You can see from the “chord bass melody” and “melodic complexity” dimensions that “America” stands out from the crowd in substantial ways:
“America” is one of those rare songs where the bass dances around effortlessly, adding color and dimension in ways that only a bass can. Most people, however, will more appreciate the melodic complexity, which shifts and changes throughout the song so that you never quite know what’s going to come next. Yet, whatever does come next feels so very satisfying and enjoyable, as there’s not much tension or friction on display in the music — I suppose Paul Simon must have determined that the tension was covered off sufficiently in the lyrical department.
The songwriting analysis wouldn’t be complete, however, without mentioning the soprano saxophone cameo –
(which I always thought was an oboe, but OK, Wikidepia, you win).
Out of nowhere, this sop-sax-thing starts dancing with the electric bass and seems to threaten taking over the entire song before eventually fading out, seemingly exhausted. Clearly, this musical “episode” was designed to evoke the playfulness of the couple during this part of the story (presumably the narrator is one instrument and his girlfriend Kathy, the other). It’s not only wildly effective, but it’s also wildly creative songwriting. Points!
Most are aware that Paul Simon did all of the writing (music and lyrics) and that Art Garfunkel was a muse, a co-producer, and master harmonizer/vocalist on the majority of Simon & Garfunkel songs.
So, it makes sense that Simon would be the lead singer, as they’re his songs. That doesn’t mean Paul Simon is a great singer. Frankly, he’s not. What he is is distinctive, pleasant, earnest, and transparently compelling. It’s a voice that we all associate with S&G so of course we like it. But on the merits, it’s really just an OK voice.
But, somehow, someway, when it blends with Art’s voice, something singularly magical happens: a new, singular vocal sound emerges.
That’s right: I’m asserting that when they sing in certain harmonies, the listener experiences the vocals as a singular thing, not two people singing in two-part harmony.
Just check out 0:16 in this clip from “America,” when they sing “I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.”
You might have not even fully realized that Simon was singing solo up to that point and then he no longer was. It’s so subtle that it verges on transcendent.
Of course, this applies to virtually all S&G songs, not just “America.” And that’s fine with me.
In my “In-a-Flash” review, I went kinda bonkers over the lyrics, so you probably know where I stand on this aspect of the song personally. But, stepping back and being more analytical and comparative to other songs, “America”’s lyrics still stand up to scrutiny. Usually, song lyrics are either storytelling, poetry, or a message. Somehow, “America” is all three. That’s some ambitious stuff right there.
At the risk of repeating myself, these lyrics are ruthlessly efficient in how much they squeeze out of themselves to not just paint a picture, but offer micro and macro commentary simultaneously. Yet, this efficiency isn’t even obvious!
Somehow, there’s still time for so-called “throw-away lines” like “Toss me a cigarette, I think there’s one in my raincoat / We smoked the last one an hour ago.” I mean, that’s a lot of time spent on idle chatter. But, somehow, this idle chatter somehow helps draw you into the narrator’s situation more intimately.
So, not a throw-away line at all. It just seems like one.
Finally, an analysis of the lyrics cannot pass by the singular line that, upon first listen, probably grabbed every listener by their lapel and yanked them out of the trance they were put into of hanging out on a bus ride with their fantasy partner:
“Kathy, I’m lost / I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
Everything sung up to that point was designed to lull the listener into a sense of pleasant, idle complacency. Then, Simon unceremoniously ripped the band-aid off and offered existential dread in its place.
Holy sh*t, what a move. All the points.
Ear Worminess: 10/10
For a song that doesn’t even need an earworm due to its various other assets, it still comes banging down the door with an epic earworm nonetheless. Culminating in the final chorus in the most harmonious harmonies by Garfunkel: “All! Come! To look for Amer (Amer) ica!”
The cool thing about this earworm is that it’s not just the melody that gets stuck in your head — it’s the sentiment as well. It’s a multidimensional earworm, people. Damn.
OFFICIAL FFR SCORE: 9.6…
rounds its way up to: a 10/10!
I was honestly open to the full review knocking down my gut instinct a peg or two.
But, that didn’t happen. If anything, the full review helped me justify my gut take on “America.” It’s truly something special. And, despite it not scoring straight-10s, it’s hard to think critically about how it could have been done better than it was.
Paul Simon has one of those minds that is able to develop songs that essentially multitask: they are stories that are poems.
Poems that are messages.
And messages that are somehow timeless.
All put to beautiful music that carry these lyrics to places where they’d never be on their own.
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