As we continue to our stroll through great backing vocals, we have to talk about the guy taking backup duties on this one:
Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” is a sweet two and a half minutes, describing the feelings of still-struggling musicians on the road:
On a tour of one-night stands
My suitcase and guitar in hand
And every stop is neatly planned for a poet
and a one-man band
On the road and working, but longing to get home:
I wish I was,
Home where my thoughts escaping,
Home where my music’s playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me
The boredom and repetition of touring is taking its toll on our singer’s confidence, too:
Tonight I’ll sing my songs again,
I’ll play the game and pretend.
But all my words come back to me
In shades of mediocrity
Like emptiness in harmony
I need someone to comfort me
I wish I was….
This is typical early Paul Simon, self-referential but accessible, and it’s a grand melody. And of course right behind Simon is the “one-man band” of the lyrics, Art Garfunkel, adding some vocal muscle.
Indeed, Garfunkel is heard on nearly every line of the song, but this is not a duet; he is clearly Simon’s backup man. The high harmonies Garfunkel was known for don’t dominate here; in the verse he sings in unison with Simon until the last few words, where he splits into his own line as the chorus begins.
The two sing in straightforward two-tenor harmony through the refrain until a multitracked Garfunkel moves in front just for the words “silently for me.” What they do here is nothing complicated, but it’s effective and adds a lot to a simple song. Simon was a fine but often not a particularly expressive singer, and Garfunkel provides the extra punch that makes “Homeward Bound” distinctive.
On a semi-technical note, people tend to think of Art Garfunkel a sort of gentle, airy tenor because of the way he often (but not always) approached his backup-singer duties. But as demonstrated on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” that’s not necessarily so. What Garfunkel had was the technical ability to control dynamics and make real artistic choices, to pick a line anywhere between angelic-sweet and rattle-the-windows. Here’s the Central Park version of “Bridge” from ’81; go to three minutes 40 on the clip, and it will give you chills. This is not a wifty little voice.
Vocals have always been the weak link in rock musicianship, more’s the pity. There are great singers of course, but rock, particularly since the early ’80s (video killed the singer who can sing), is way overloaded with tiny voices, rocky pitch, clumsy phrasing, and a general air of faking it. And there are also always a few big-voice belters around with no subtlety or taste.
To be honest, I’ve enjoyed a lot of records that feature mediocre-to-lousy vocals; that’s just part of loving rock ‘n’ roll. But do there have to be so many of them? Someday Pete and I will get into the down-and-dirty on the best and worst of pop and rock vocalists. But for a Monday, it’s enough to just listen to Art Garfunkel sing, with Paul Simon and without.