I first heard Art Garfunkel’s third and best solo LP in the living room of the man who wrote ten of its twelve songs. Almost apologetically, Jimmy Webb introduced Watermark as “highly esoteric” before shyly venturing that he considered it a “major work.” Well, the encouraging sales figures would seem to indicate that the album isn’t as limited in appeal as Webb may have feared. And that’s good, because Watermark contains some very worthy pop music.
Garfunkel, a longtime admirer of Webb’s oeuvre (his 1973 hit, “All I Know,” was written by Webb), tapped his extensive collection of the songwriter’s demos for material. Several of these songs date back to Webb’s late-Sixties, goldmine days, and Garfunkel’s commitment to them shines through in both his singing and his intelligent production. Watermark is at once creamily thick and as light as a soufflé.
The uncluttered, subtly textured sound is no small achievement. Garfunkel had a year to devise ways to produce each track — the LP was recorded in seven studios — and he utilized such disparate players and singers as the Chieftains, Paul Desmond, the Oklahoma Baptist University Chorale and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. While Angel Clare and Breakaway, Garfunkel’s earlier efforts, droned in spots, Watermark cruises from the upbeat dreaminess of “Saturday Suit” through the moodiness of “Wooden Planes” to the evergreen coolness of “She Moved through the Fair,” a traditional Irish folk song. There’s no musical dillydallying, and there’s not a Uillean pipe out of place.
That said, I’m still trying to make my peace with “(What a) Wonderful World,” which reunites Paul Simon with Art Garfunkel and adds James Taylor. Somewhere between the failure of Webb’s “Crying in My Sleep” to make it as a single and the subsequent release of Watermark, a decision apparently was made to look elsewhere for an insurance policy. I understood the inclusion of the sure-fire Sam Cooke oldie, but, to my ears, this latest entry into the already crowded remake derby still fits like a grapefruit among tangerines.