The obvious question is, “Why?” That is, why would a legendary artist go back into the studio and re-cut her best-loved hits for a new release? What makes Carly Simon’s new project especially confusing is that no one thinks her classic singles need the least bit of tinkering with; those mellow-groove adult-contemporary folk-rock vibes are what made Simon a ’70s superstar in the first place.
The new project, Never Been Gone, is not so much a risky maneuver for Simon since, if the album flops, it does nothing to diminish the legacy of an artist already inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. But Simon is still clearly hungry for a return to the album charts — she’s currently suing Starbucks, for instance, on whose label her 2008 album, This Kind of Love, was released, claiming that the coffee chain failed to adequately promote the record. Now, with plans to tour Europe for the first time (!) and a slew of TV appearances scheduled, Carly hopes the world will rediscover her old chestnuts, this time in mostly acoustic reworkings overseen by Ben Taylor, Simon and James Taylor’s son, for his Iris Records label.
The album, however, is quite a mess, right down to the dreadful album cover. At age 64, Simon’s voice is a little huskier and more fidgety than it was during the Ford Administration, but that’s not the real problem here. Screwy song selection is. While the project is billed as a re-recording of her classics, some of Carly’s best-loved tunes are missing — where is “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” or “Nobody Does It Better”? By leaving out essential Simon tunes, any newbie will be way better served by one of the best-of compilations (2004’s Reflections would do the trick, although the classic ten-song The Best of Carly Simon from 1975 contains nothing but the most indelible singles from her peak period). Otherwise, Never Been Gone (that title sounds a tad defensive) includes non-canon tracks like the awful “Boys in the Trees”, the title cut of her 1973 album, and the deeply-buried “Never Been Gone” from 1979’s Spy. Neither song deserves much of an excavation, although “It Happens Everyday” from 1983’s Hello Big Man is a hidden gem worthy of a second chance, even if the version here features a far weaker vocal delivery than the original.
The other serious issue here is the arrangements on the classics that did make the cut. “You’re So Vain” is Simon’s most overplayed song, but it deserves to be, with its slippery singalong chorus and snarky lyrics, the source of the strangest Deep Throat guessing game in pop-music history. A new studio take is, again, utterly unnecessary, and made worse by a bothersome rewrite that repeats the line “clouds in my coffee”, inducing the same squirmy feeling of hearing a record skipping. “Anticipation” is also here, harkening back to a world before squeeze bottles; the song is given a softer, slower acoustic-guitar reading, which works better as it sounds fresh without being gimmicky. Other standards, like the set-opening “The Right Thing to Do” and the terrific “Coming Around Again” are fairly straightforward readings, but are certainly not improvements, leading back to the questions about the project’s overall purpose.
If Simon wanted to cock the ears of a new generation of fans, Never Been Gone is a sure misfire, since the record contains neither strong vocal takes nor inspiring versions of her best material. Simply making a live album would have made much more sense — it’s been over 20 years since her last one, and listeners would have been more willing to forgive the daffy attempts at rearranging perfect-as-they-are classics. Simon remains a seminal figure, what with those legs-for-days (remember the cover of 1975’s Playing Possum?) and that huge Joker smile, the musical embodiment of a soft-focus feathered-folk that has since vanished from the face of the earth. It would be nice, however, if Simon would collaborate with a choice producer to feed her contemporary material and do what Steve Earle did for Joan Baez or what Rick Rubin did for Neil Diamond, giving Simon the smart comeback she deserves. But a hodgepodge redux like Never Been Gone is truly for Carly Simon die-hards only.