Review Summary: What a wonderful album.
The Roman historian Plutarch once said, "What you achieve inwardly will change outer reality." In a way, this quote could really apply to numerous bands given their histories, particularly the folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel. The band's internal struggles and successes were a key ingredient in what made their music work, often being notable themes in much of their lyricism. In terms of "changing outer reality," just look at their impact in the music industry. While they were in the folk rock movement of the 60's along with Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Rubber Soul-era Beatles, etc., they were one of the most influential artists of that musical era. Their second effort Sounds of Silence is widely known as their breakthrough album, particularly because of its title track's legacy as a classic song in its genre. Not only that, but I might just consider this their best album as well.
Sounds of Silence is quite a short affair, but in this case, it pays to make the work concise. The album includes the vocal-driven folk rock and wonderful harmonies the group are known for, throwing in few surprises but not exactly needing to. The strength has always been with the lyricism, vocal melodies, and simple-yet-emotive guitar work, and this album is no stranger to that sound. The lyrical themes revolve around silence (of course), isolation, fear, death, relationships, the works. The lyrics are presented in a sweet and simple way; there's no bullshitting the listener, which is pretty refreshing. While most of the themes are very melancholic, the melodies almost seem to contradict this. For instance, "I Am a Rock" is about a man whose refusal to socialize with other people grants him a life of isolation, but music is cheery and almost cathartic. The vocal melodies during the choruses all harmonize in major 3rds, again giving off an oddly happy vibe. But other songs go perfectly with their themes. "The Sound of Silence" is just as classic as its always been, with the haunting opening lines "Hello darkness, my old friend" kicking off this wonderful piece of work. The verses and choruses maintain a mid-tempo pace and don't really change things up composition-wise, but the vocals and lyricism are, once again, what make this work. The way these two singers bring up the theme of darkness and isolation verges between enlightening and gut-wrenching, and having beautiful guitar flourishes and sparse leads really helps it.
The album is also clearly organized so the listener has moments of energy and moments to breathe at all the right places. For every sentimental ballad like "Kathy's Song," there's always a rocker like "We've Got a Groovy Thing Goin'" to offset it. Speaking of "Kathy's Song," that could possibly be the best song of the entire record. Even if you don't pick up the record (although I suggest you do, obviously), at least listen to this song and hear a melancholic love song done right. The guitar work is simple but the fingerpicking switches through multiple emotions quite frequently, even in as much a few measures of playing. Paul Simon's vocal performance is great, and you can really hear the effort he's putting into it all. The song's another way to prove that a song doesn't have to be virtuosic and complex to be good. Also, the album's rockers can be pretty violent and scathing in a way, "Richard Cory" and "Blessed" being the prime examples. The former is based on the poem of the same name, and has Art Garfunkel singing about a wealthy man who eventually shoots himself in the head of dissatisfaction with his life. Garfunkel really has a way of alternating between anger and tragedy in his voice, knowing when to set the mood with each vocal melody. "Blessed" is a slower number in 3/4 time and seems like a blunt attack on religion, with lines like "blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers." It's done very well though, switching between scathing raucous verses and more quiet, contemplative choruses to even things out.
And that's exactly what makes the album work so well: balance. It knows exactly what to give the listener at all the right moments of the songs, resulting in there being no weak point whatsoever. It's rare to find an album so utterly perfect, but Sounds of Silence seems to fit the bill. If you've never heard Simon and Garfunkel before, listen to this or Bridge Over Troubled Water, as they seem to be the band's best works. I'd personally suggest this record before anything by them though; it's a fantastic experience that explains just why this duo are still so acclaimed even today.