Before it became sordidly meme-efied, ‘Sound of Silence’ was rightfully heralded as one of the greatest folk songs ever written. As it happens, the very fact that it found itself pasted onto a thousand cliched ten-second clips is testimony to how perfectly it encapsulated that cold wind feeling of utter despair, a feeling that sadly resonates with universality.
The imagery of the song is something that any literary prose master would hope to replicate. The old collar turned up to shield from a brisking headwind under a hazy streetlamp glow is etched into the psyche of the listener like a postcard picture. And the D minor soundscape that this fleeting snapshot emerges from creates a brooding atmosphere that has rarely been rivalled in music.
This songwriting wizardry earmarked Paul Simon as a man beyond his years, which is what he remarked on when he told Terry Gross of NPR: “It was just when I was coming out of college. My job was to take the songs that this huge publishing company owned and go around to record companies and see if any of their artists wanted to record the songs.”
Adding: “I worked for them for about six months and never got a song placed, but I did give them a couple of my songs because I felt so guilty about taking their money. Then I got into an argument with them and said, ‘Look, I quit, and I’m not giving you my new song.’ And the song that I had just written was ‘The Sound of Silence.’ I thought, ‘I’ll just publish it myself,’ and from that point on I owned my own songs, so that was a lucky argument.”
And as he importantly concludes: “I think about songs that it’s not just what the words say but what the melody says and what the sound says. My thinking is that if you don’t have the right melody, it really doesn’t matter what you have to say, people don’t hear it.” In crafting the melody for ‘The Sound of Silence’, Simon takes on the lower vocals for the harmony while Art Garfunkel takes on the melody line. This creates a depth and duality that feels befitting to the visceral mood of the song.
In other words, the despair that the song encapsulates is not a flat emotion, it’s different to a mellowed melancholy, there is a differing pitch to the cutting edge of despair and that is reflected in the way that the vocals and instrumentation are layered. There is a brilliance to the purity of the emotion the song presents which is why it sits so perfectly across the many internet mini-atrocities that it has soundtracked.
As Paul Simon says, “Really the key to ‘The Sound of Silence’ is the simplicity of the melody and the words, which are youthful alienation. It’s a young lyric, but not bad for a 21-year-old.” Not bad at all sir, that youthful blinkered beauty of not looking beyond the immediate moment makes it one of the sad song champions. And all of that is rammed home in the scintillating vocal mix, a mix that is unmistakably Simon & Garfunkel.