Somewhere beyond angst, beyond hopelessness and utter desolation, lies the Carpenters. Even if Karen’s anorectic decline hadn’t been mythologized in song (Sonic Youth’s “Tunic”) and film (Todd Haynes’s Superstar), the creepy sexless photographs of the brother-sister duo, with their strained toothpaste-white smiles and their lacquered bangs and their polyester wardrobe, are enough to project the ineffable sadness of pretending to casualness when you are in fact suffocating. And of course the pair’s music is merciless in the way it pummels you with Sunday afternoon ennui and dentist-office despair. Nothing else in the history of pop music sounds quite like their otherworldly blend of sunny harmonies and glimpses into the abyss; in retrospect it seems amazing that they ever could have been on the charts anywhere on planet Earth, let alone field a half dozen or so Top 10 hits.
Initially marketed as flower children (have a look at the original cover of their first album, Offering), the Carpenters began their career covering Buffalo Springfield and hippie anthems like “Get Together”. But they didn’t catch on commercially until they released their version of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You,” which takes the somewhat corny song’s implicit wistfulness and makes it a steamroller of melancholy. Paced like a death march and embalmed with a fastidious, airless arrangement, it’s like the musical equivalent of the most luxurious casket in the funeral director’s showroom: One could lay oneself to rest forever in its easeful, languid groove.
The Carpenters, their third album, was released in 1971, with a novelty faux-envelope that concealed the mawkish photograph of the duo sitting together in a meadow. This was the first record to feature their distinctive logo, lettered in the customary brown and featuring the sort of typography that you see in Christian bookstores. It evokes a hymnal, with Richard and Karen as the priest and priestess of some strange neutered religion. Just as this record comes sealed in its dainty flesh-colored envelope, the Carpenters themselves are hermetically sealed off from the world we know, inhabiting instead a muffled inner sanctum where every dream inexorably goes awry and there is every opportunity to lament and ruminate over what you are powerless to affect. Listening to this record is like drowning in slow motion in a bathtub full of tears.
Side one opens with a musical suicide note called “Rainy Days and Mondays”, on which Karen sings cheerless lines like “Walking around, some kind of lonely clown” and “talking to myself and feeling old” with a remorseless, pitch perfect clarity, accompanied by mournful notes on the harmonica and a lachrymose string arrangement calibrated for maximum pathos. The lyrics gesture toward a supposed consolation in love and friendship, but the overwhelming feeling evoked is that depression is impossible to eradicate and there is indeed “nothing to do but frown.”
After the brief one-minute interlude of “Saturday”, a bouncy music-hall tune sung by Richard that is pickled in nostalgia, a show tune lurched out of context that may have been intended to introduce levity but instead demonstrates how far away such lightheartedness can seem, how much effort it can require, how false and accelerated it can feel, it’s a relief to return to lugubrious desperation on “Let Me Be the One,” an economical song with a verse that lasts only one line before it hits the pleading chorus. The bridge, which has four lines, seems to last a relative eternity. This subtle reversal of what you’d expect from the verse-chorus structure keeps listeners off balance for the entire duration, mirroring the uncertainty that the lyric evokes and conveying an ultimate sense that the singer is not going to “be the one to turn to” for the “silent understanding” she promises, that nothing but anxiety lay on that path. “(A Place to) Hide Away” returns us fully to the darkness. The lyrics verge on psychedelic — “Bright colored pinwheels go round in my head / I run through the mist of the wine” — and dwell on the usual themes of sorrow and self-recrimination. Richard’s arrangement, framing Karen’s unearthly voice with tasteful woodwinds and swelling strings, is as soft and gentle as always, a downy, fluffy pillow slipped comfortably over your face.
The side closes with readymade wedding song “For All We Know”, an apparent attempt to repeat the duo’s earlier success with “We’ve Only Just Begun”. Ostensibly a joyful song celebrating the possibilities of love’s growing, it nevertheless conjures a stubborn moroseness; it seems to mock the very thing it tries to describe. Again the music is warm and coddling, but it nurtures unsettling contradictions. When Karen sings that the couple remain “Strangers in many ways” and fatalistically concludes that “love may grow for all we know,” the outcome of the relationship seems very much in doubt. This is what the Carpenters excel at: creating exactly this kind of self-consuming artifact, producing songs that efface themselves as they play, leaving a chilly feeling of pristine emptiness where you’d expect the heartwarming treacle to be.
The first side forms a perfect suite of purgatorial misery, capturing the way depression can pass itself off as a grim kind of perfection. Hope shimmers only to evaporate before our eyes. But that all pales in comparison to the album’s centerpiece, “Superstar”, which is the reason why you need to buy this record the next time you see it in a thrift store. On the surface the song is a maudlin account of a groupie hopelessly in love with a musician — the man with the “sad guitar” — who’s used her; but in the Carpenters’ hands the scenario takes on almost existential significance. What’s being described through the song’s unbearably dramatic mise en scene is the way that pop culture in general invariably lets us down and the irremediable despair that’s bred into us when we are taught to respond so thoroughly to the disposable chintz that’s sold to us for entertainment. Despite being made for the masses, pop songs can seem to speak to us personally and seduce us. They can seem to have been designed to specifically illuminate our lives, but ultimately they have nothing to reveal; at some point we discover that everything we thought we saw in them came from inside us and that they have duped us into engaging merely in an ersatz emotional dialogue with ourselves. The pathetic groupie in the lyrics is just us, scoring our deepest feelings to songs that were written only to distract us. “Loneliness is such a sad affair,” indeed, and our only recourse is to lose ourselves again in another song. It’s the most devastating portrait of futility on an album replete with them, and its effortless effectiveness, its irresistible pathos, lures us in to listen to it again and again, condemning us further each time to the peculiar hell it so adroitly describes yet at the same time transforming that misery into bliss. The Carpenters leave us with confirmation of just how good it can feel when our culture betrays us.