It’s amazing that here we are, a decade into Sony’s Essential series, which has given us (sometimes overly) exhaustive compilations of seemingly everyone under the label’s large umbrella, and they’re just finally getting around to Carole King. The concept of the Essential series is usually straightforward: typically two discs of the subject’s hits and fan favorites in chronological order, in a recognizable package requiring little imagination or effort on the company’s part, but with reliably high-quality results. They rarely deviate from the formula; Bruce Springsteen’s entry in the series included a third disc of rarities, and now Carole King’s is split even more radically, into a disc of King as “The Singer” and one of King as “The Songwriter”, often in tandem with her one-time husband Gerry Goffin.
Despite the seeming obviousness of pairing the singer’s hits with the songwriter’s, this is a relatively underused approach. Sony did something similar, and revelatory, with Kris Kristofferson’s work in the early ‘90s, but it’s surprising how rarely anyone else has done anything of the sort. In King’s case, what could’ve been a slapdash piece of product—who’d have been surprised if Sony had taken 1994’s A Natural Woman: The Ode Collection, redone the packaging, and voila: The Essential Carole King? —instead winds up being an illuminating listening experience. Listen to King’s hits on the first disc, and then hear how those melodic gifts were already abundant in the early ‘60s. It won’t surprise anyone who’s familiar with King’s track record, but it’s nice to have all these songs together in the same package.
Unfortunately, both the “Singer” and “Songwriter” discs leave something to be desired, and it’s hard to decide which disc seems more like an afterthought. Let’s consider the “Songwriter” disc first. Only a curmudgeon could bemoan the absence of “Don’t Say Nothin’ Bad (About My Baby)”, “I’m Into Something Good”, “It’s Going to Take Some Time”, “Keep Your Hands Off My Baby”, “Porpoise Song”, “Some of Your Lovin’”, or any number of well-remembered Goffin/King hits, when “The Songwriter” does include songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, “The Loco-Motion”, and “Up on the Roof”, songs that belong on any list of the finest pop records of any era. But allow me to be that curmudgeon for just a moment: In this age of the biggest record companies having ownership of the majority of older labels’ catalogues, and with cross-licensing no longer being the prohibitive hurdle that it was in the reissue-happy ‘90s, why not give us more Goffin/King on the second disc? 15 songs is a lovely taste, the biggest songs are here in their very-familiar hit versions, and it’s an enjoyable listen—even Billy Joel’s “Hey Girl”, the lone post-‘60s track, is welcome— but it’s hard not to wish for more. An 80-minute rundown of the best of the Goffin/King songbook wouldn’t have a second of dull space.
That’s more than can be said for the “Singer” disc of The Essential Carole King. As a complement to Tapestry—the one Carole King album that Sony could’ve slapped the “essential” tag on and not been even slightly wrong—it does a good enough job of assembling her hits. Sony’s done this plenty of other times, although this one brings things embarrassingly up-to-date by including collaborations with Babyface and Celine Dion, neither of whose histrionics could be further from King’s vulnerability and simplicity. Skipping a quarter century of King’s career—admittedly not a very fertile period—and instead offering up two heaps of adult-contemporary cliches was a poor call. And what, no “Smackwater Jack”?
At this point, the only real reason for The Essential Carole King to exist is because King was a glaring omission from Sony’s successful series. The approach they took would’ve made the wait worthwhile, had anyone actually been waiting for it. Now that Sony has tried something a little different with Carole King, perhaps someone will pick the ball up and really run with it. With Ace having compiled two discs of Goffin/King as part of their ongoing excavation of hits and misses by the leading songwriting and production figures of the ‘60s, there is a market for a Goffin/King package of wall-to-wall hits, or a more expansive box set similar to what Rhino did for Burt Bacharach with The Look of Love. Additionally, there has yet to be a proper collection of the pre-Ode recordings of Carole King. Essential offers one nod in the direction of King’s pre-fame career in the form of her only real Brill Building-era solo hit, “It Might as Well Rain Until September”. As a clearer link to the music on the “Songwriter” disc than any of her ‘70s hits, it’s a welcome addition. What would be even more educational than yet another trawl through her adult recordings—and probably even more listenable—would be a package that combines King’s early records and demos with other artists’ recordings of the Goffin/King songs. Now that is what I would call the essential Carole King.