Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Song #83 of 9999 - The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel

Song #83 of 9999

Title: The Boxer
Artist: Simon & Garfunkel
Year: 1970
Album: Bridge Over Troubled Water

Take a few minutes and listen to this song Really listen. It's a song you've probably heard a thousand times, but when you really parse it out, you catch some pretty amazing details that really make the song.

I'll start with the first lick in the guitar. Does this arpeggio have any business announcing the arrival of this song? It's a half-diminished 7th chord (the Tristan chord if you want to get Wagnerian about it) from outside of the key of B Major that emerges with the first verse. A curious choice that definitely gets your attention.

The second verse introduces what sounds like an ailing bari sax but turns out to be a bass harmonica! It's such a bizarre and unexpected texture. The light percussion helps a lot too. I mean, is it necessary? Probably not—these guys have your attention with the lyrics, the hypnotic guitar picking and vocal harmonies. But it's so inventive and pleasing to hear all of this stuff. They're like a solemn and dignified jug band.

There's other stuff, but let's talk about the vocal harmonies. They're glorious of course, but more than that, they're so well-constructed and different in every verse. Does the song start to get long by the fourth verse? We'll never know because of the brilliant turn that happens on the words "bleeding me" at 2:39, as the harmony is directed to the mediant (iii) for the first time in the song. It's one of my favorite moments in this or any song. So smart.

And then the home stretch. The "Lie la lie" chorus, originally intended as a placeholder for lyrics yet to be written, becomes the commiserate rallying cry of everyone whose ever been down on their luck even for a moment. The buildup is grand with strings that are nice and dark and a gradual increase in reverb that washes over everything. "The Boxer" tends to get overshadowed by "Bridge Over Troubled Water," released later that year, but for my money, it's Simon & Garfunkel's greatest record from top to bottom.

(I'm just going to acknowledge that this song may have actually been released in 1969, not 1970. But I already wrote all this stuff and don't want to wait until....let's see....November to tell you about it!)


  1. Great write up on this amazing song. I've never noticed precisely what happens at 2:39 but you're right, it's an extremely genius change up in the chord progression. The harmonies are certainly incredible, as they are in everything they released together. I've seen Paul perform this song live three times and it definitely lacks a little something without Art, but every performance has still been amazing nonetheless.

    I've heard Paul say that when he writes songs, he likes to follow up deep and thought provoking lyrics with something that is filled with cliches and stuff that's easy to kinda skip over, in order to allow the listener time to digest the important stuff he just said. I think this usually applies more in a line-by-line context as opposed to verse-chorus, but I wonder if this had any play in the decision to leave the "Lie la lie" placeholder lyrics?

    1. I'm not sure. I read that everybody involved with making the record just kind of got used to the "lie la lie" and liked it. I think it's a happy accident kind of the for the reason you mention: it turns the song from something fairly complex (lyrically, anyway) to something everyone can sing, even drunk people! Anytime you can turn something into a pub song, you've got yourself a hit.