Arthur Garfunkel’s return to recording, a project that took some 18 months to complete, is one of the most lushly produced pop albums ever made. To the sweeter sound of the Simon and Garfunkel recorded canon a vast array of orchestral resources and the latest tricks in sound technology have been applied, the goal being to achieve a monumental Romanticism. That goal is achieved, but not without aesthetic sacrifices.
The production (by Garfunkel and Roy Halee) accentuates both the virtues and the limitations of Garfunkel’s singing. The virtues are its choirboy loveliness and capacity to evoke an inspirational purity. The limitations are interpretative. Garfunkel employs too uniform an approach to too wide a range of material. He wants to make everything pretty, and he invariably succeeds, though in so doing he sometimes obscures the character of the material.
The two best cuts on the album are pop ballads with strong melodies and ultraromantic lyrics. “Traveling Boy,” by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols, a whoppingly sentimental I-must-go-for-the-road-calls-me number, is simply gorgeous. Even finer is the single, Jimmy Webbs’ “All I Know,” a beautiful expression of the desire for a romantic passion to last forever. Produced with full orchestration and heavy vocal effects, both songs achieve the status of fantasy-artifacts, reminiscent in the accumulation of sound toward near-operatic climax of the earliest hits of Mario Lanza, to say nothing of the unique sound of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The third outstanding cut is a previously unrecorded Van Morrison song, “I Shall Sing,” whose throbbing Caribbean arrangement is the album’s most imaginative.
The rest of Angel Clare is more sweet than inspirational. Charlie Monroe’s “Down in the Willow Garden,” the bizarre story of a young man who poisons and stabs his girlfriend, is given a Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme treatment that renders it as flat as a pancake. The traditional “Barbara Allen” is so smothered in strings and such that the lyrics are almost unintelligible. “Feuilles-Oh/Do Space Men Pass Dead Souls on Their Way to the Moon” skillfully attaches to a Haitian folk song a Bach melody with lyrics by Art’s wife, Linda Grossman. Here Garfunkel’s silken vocal and the lush production effect a synthesis that, though neither Haitian nor baroque, is lovely nonetheless. The same goes for Milchberg —Hammond —Hazlewood’s “Mary Was an Only Child.” Finally we have Osibisa’s “Woyaya,” which with its children’s chorus sounds like a spin-off from the Carpenters’ “Sing”; another Jimmy Webb song, this one mediocre, called “Another Lullaby,” and Randy Newman’s “Old Man.”
The treatment given to the Newman song emphasizes the chief trouble with the album. Backed by saccharine violins, Garfunkel tries to turn this ironic little masterpiece of absurdity and fatalism into a sentimental eulogy. Here, and in the Monroe song, Garfunkel and Halee demonstrate most acutely their tendency to ride herd over any and all material in the interests of aural beauty. Where a song is congenial to this end, the result is an opulent, if somewhat overcalculated, success. Where it is not, the result is prettiness for its own sake — which is pretty enough for me, if I don’t listen too closely.