Counterbalance No. 66: Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’

Carole King

Klinger: If you had told me when we started our mission to make sense of the all-time most critically acclaimed albums that we would be discussing Carole King’s Tapestry album within the first 18 months, I would have laughed in your face for so long that you would eventually start to cry. Then I would have felt bad for a minute, but then I would remember what I was laughing about and I’d start laughing again. After all, this is an album that appears to have almost no cultural cachet today. Just about every album we’ve covered so far has been the kind that rock geeks discuss in hushed tones, handed down with the sage advice that “this LP will change your life”. I can’t see where that is the case with Tapestry. Last year marked the 40th anniversary of Tapestry, and we haven’t heard a whole lot from the Rock Industrial Complex, which never misses an opportunity to commemorate just about any milestone that comes their way. (I’m cradling a 33rd Anniversary Legacy edition of Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town even as we speak.)

That said, Carole King seems like a very nice person and I find Tapestry to be a most enjoyable exercise in pop songcraft. But you’re the one with the well-documented soft spot for finely crafted adult contemporary music, Mendelsohn. What’s your take on Tapestry?

Mendelsohn: I love this album. Saying that, I now feel the need to push myself down and kick myself in the gut. Seeing as how doing something like that is physically impossible, maybe you would be so kind as to break a couple of my ribs while I writhe on the floor, cursing myself for enjoying the dulcet folk stylings of arguably the best female singer-songwriter ever to grace the airwaves.

I grew up listening to Carole King because my mom enjoyed her music, so none of this is all that new to me. What is new to me is the idea of Carole King being so critically acclaimed. Apparently, there are a bunch of moms hiding out within the ranks of the criterati, making sure all those rock geeks wash their hands and eat their vegetables. Either that or all those hardened rock geeks are really just little girls hiding beneath layers of fat and a pit-stained Sonic Youth t-shirt.

I don’t know what to tell you, Klinger. This album is perfectly crafted, and when I started doing research for this piece I found out that King is the actually the queen of songwriting, having penned almost every adult-contemporary hit that got played on the radio in the 1970s.

Klinger: Not to mention most of the hits of the ’60s, which I think was a major factor in Carole King’s ability to win over the hearts and minds of first-wave critics in 1971. I’m sure it took them by surprise that the young woman who co-wrote “The Loco-Motion” was not only making a move to compete with the burgeoning singer-songwriter movement of that era, but was also able to hold own against all those acoustic-strumming navel-gazers. In a certain sense, this album is almost as transformative a statement as, say Astral Weeks or Ziggy Stardust as we hear an artist reinvent herself.

But even as I’ve repeatedly listened to this album over the past few weeks, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that while there’s no doubt that Carole King is a great songwriter, the songs she writes would be best handled by other performers. Every time I heard “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, for example, I couldn’t help wishing I was listening to Aretha Franklin’s version. In fact, I’d say it’s pretty gutsy to even record that song after Aretha had already delivered the definitive version. I also found myself wishing that I could hear someone else take on “Way Over Yonder”. But then, my mom didn’t own Tapestry. She was more of an Alice Cooper fan. Did you find yourself having a similar experience, Mendelsohn, or were you simply swept away by memories of your family’s station wagon?

Mendelsohn: I think that unshakable feeling you have is right on the money. As a songwriter, King is one of the most successful and deserves all of the accolades. Her body of work through the ’60s and ’70s is amazing—she had a hand in over 100 hit songs. What other artist or band can say that? When we think about songwriters having some sort of preternatural skill with pop melody, the list usually starts with Brian Wilson and ends with Lennon/McCartney. In terms of overall success, King puts them to shame.

On the flip side, as a performer, she doesn’t have the kind of sparkle that can project an artist beyond the material. But that may have more to do with the fact that we are comparing King head-to-head with Aretha Franklin, which is probably unfair. While King is a great songwriter, it might have been to her detriment that we get to hear her songs coming out of the mouths of other performers. Tapestry is solid but there is no overt showmanship, it’s great pop music but it is rooted in the folk arena, which normally places more emphasis on the song than on the singer.

And, yes, anytime I hear anything on this record, I’m immediately five years old again, and all I can think about is that are those red velour seats in my family’s old Pontiac Bonneville station wagon.

Klinger: Velour. Nice. Step up to luxury, my friend.

Yes, Tapestry has its folk leanings, and with that comes the intimacy that made the album such a critics’ darling back in the day. That folkishness, with its acoustic strummery and unadorned piano playing, serves as a delivery system for the pure pop experience. And pop music, at its best, is an inherently inclusive, democratic form—that’s partly why rockist snobs so regularly turn up their nose at it. We’ve kidded a bit about Tapestry being an album for moms, and there’s certainly a kernel of truth to that. But I can’t even tell you how often I’ve heard music and musicians derided as music for housewives or secretaries or whoever else falls outside the generally accepted criteria for cool, and it’s kind of bothersome to me. (Of course, it became even more bothersome to me when the term “dad rock” made its way into the vernacular. First they came for the housewives, and I didn’t speak out . . .)

At its best, Tapestry sounds to me like a pretty accurate chronicle of the ups and downs of a woman who’s approaching 30 (it’s kind of like the TV show Rhoda, but in LP form). “It’s Too Late”, with lyrics by Toni Stern, is a particularly well-observed depiction of a relationship that’s reached endgame. And while at first blush, “Beautiful” sounds like the great lost Dove soap jingle that never was, I’ll be darned if her Beatlesque chord progressions and relentlessly chipper delivery aren’t downright infectious. To me, these songs are when the delivery jibes perfectly with the song.

Mendelsohn: Predictably, it’s the hits off this album that resonate the most with me. “I Feel The Earth Move”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, and “It’s Too Late” were the songs I heard the most in the back of the station wagon. The one thing that kind of surprised me in listening to this record were the funk inflections that permeate “It’s Too Late”. The smooth groove and guitar and sax solos in the middle seem so at odds with the rest of this album full of down-to-earth folk accoutrements. But underneath all of that, “It’s Too Late” is just an updated spin on doo-wop pop, and would sound just as good in the hands of any number of girl groups from the 1960s. Or you could slow it down and play it real soulful like the Isley Brothers did. I’ll say one thing about King’s music: it translate well across the pop spectrum. But does that help push Tapestry‘s critical status? Or is it’s place on the Great List a nod to King’s mass appeal and platinum records?

Klinger: I think that may be part of it. In 1971, this became one of the best-selling albums of all time, and in many ways it serves as a kind of shorthand for what was going on in pop music at the time. I think in a lot of ways Tapestry is the Great List’s placeholder for the entire singer-songwriter genre that was springing up at the time. And I think the fact that King set about reinterpreting a couple of her best-known songs (“A Natural Woman” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) may have been what tipped the balance among the critics in her favor and away from, say James Taylor. That first wave of critics were, after all, guys who cut their teeth on old girl group 45s on Scepter and Cameo-Parkway. Positioning herself as a bridge between those two eras was, intentional or not, a very shrewd move on Carole King’s part. But then, she wasn’t exactly new to the business.

Mendelsohn: She was dominating the business—Tapestry was just the final feather in her cap, and it stands as proof that she could sell her own songs just as well as anybody else could.