Nora was incapable of doing anything without having a sense of humor about it, and there was never a Nora who was ever embarrassed about the romantic.Carly Simon
Nora Ephron and Carly Simon were a match made in heaven. Both women were popular artists who looked at their domestic and social foibles and created art from their stories. Ephron, like Simon, was a scion of a wealthy and accomplished family and aimed her razor-sharp wit at the people around her, a 20th-century Jane Austen who created comedy from her world of Washington, DC power players, cocktail parties, infidelity, and failed marriages, and being a middle-aged woman in a youth-obsessed culture. By the mid-1980s, Carly Simon matured into a wise and witty pop sage, settling into middle age as a wealthy East Coast celebrity who periodically turned to music.
The singer who unleashed her fury on “You’re So Vain” was replaced by a more reflective and thoughtful bard writing songs from the perspective of a very rich and famous woman with a host of very famous friends. Like Ephron, Simon looked to her fame-laced life when composing her tales of domestic ennui. When Ephron’s roman à clef, Heartburn, was adapted into a film by Mike Nichols, Simon was tapped to write the film’s theme song, “Coming Around Again”. Both projects – the film and the music – are artifacts of the 1980s.
Heartburn and “Coming Around Again” are products of a decade that wrestled with rapidly changing gender roles as well as a generation of Baby Boomers who came of age during the counterculture of the 1960s only to become more conservative and embrace the capitalist, consumerist culture of the ‘Me Decade’ of the 1980s. Simon’s song and album is the standard-bearer of 1980s mainstream, upper-class liberal pop. Although she never shrugged off her folksier singer-songwriter guise of the 1970s, she adapted to the glossier, smoother sounds of 1980s soft-rock, spinning yarns of upper-class anxiety.
Coming Around Again opens with the title track. Simon introduces it with soft, mild synths and keyboards. Simon’s lyrics paint a picture of ordinary domesticity. “Baby sneezes, Mommy pleases, Daddy breezes in.” The naïve rhyme – almost like a nursery rhyme – depict a mundanity that should be relatable. But then Simon pivots, as she’s wont to do, by professing, “So good on paper, so romantic, but so bewildering.” Immediately, Simon tosses the ideal of domesticity out of the window and introduces the kind of particular angst in which she excels. This tense tale of love and marriage is further troubled by Simon’s fretful words as she sings, “You break a window, burn the soufflé, scream a lullaby.”
The song’s title refers to the cyclical nature of love and relationships, particularly difficult relationships that cannot seem to come to a natural conclusion instead of going around in circles. In Ephron’s script (based on her stormy marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein), the lead character – Ephron’s avatar – struggles with her husband’s infidelity while trying to maintain some semblance of sanity and dignity. Their marriage is a series of ups and downs, as scored so gently and astutely by Simon’s deceptively simple lyrics. Though Simon’s song is written for Ephron’s film, which detailed her struggle with a broken marriage, Simon herself went through a rocky marriage with a high-profile partner, singer-songwriter James Taylor, and one could excavate the lyrics in hopes of discovering some subtle messages that allude to that superstar pairing.
But the genius of Carly Simon – especially Carly Simon of the mid-1980s – is that she can craft story songs with enough broad and common themes that seem to apply to all of her listeners’ lives. Though far softer, “Coming Around Again” could be seen as a sibling of “You’re So Vain”, it’s a far more mature, older sibling. In the classic rock song, Simon vents about a wayward lover who is crass and a megalomaniac, someone who uses Simon and then tosses her aside with little-to-no regard. In “Coming Around Again”, the narrator is older, wiser, wealthier, and not as quick to turn to fury. Instead of being angry, like she is in “You’re So Vain”, Simon embodies regret, resignation, and hope. The stakes for the Carly Simon in “Coming Around Again” are far greater because she’s fallen for the American ideal of love, marriage, and adulthood, participating in culturally mandated rituals like getting married, having kids, throwing dinner parties, and keeping up appearances for the neighbors.
Childhood and motherhood are never far away from Simon’s thoughts. As a companion piece to “Coming Around Again”, Simon recorded a version of the classic nursery rhyme, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, using the same backing track as “Coming Around Again”. The two songs bookend the studio LP, and it’s a clever way to open and close the album. The melody is the same, and Simon’s lyrics and structure recall the childish innocence of the children’s song. But there’s more going on with the lyrics of the kid song.
In the nursery rhyme, the titular spider is a persistent little thing, making its way back up the water spout, despite the rain washing it down. Simon’s narrator of “Coming Around Again” could probably relate – in some fundamental way – to that spider, given that she, like the spider, gets knocked down by life and yet carries on, hoping that if she tries and doesn’t give up, she will prevail. Though a seemingly odd choice for a song, it makes perfect sense when listening to the album from some distance. The song doesn’t feel like a novelty or a cutesy way to introduce listeners to her tiny kids; instead, it affirms themes of motherhood, children, love, and the inherent risk in both concepts.
It’s the inherent risk of heartbreak driving much of Coming Around Again. Though not a concept album, much of the tracklist is devoted to songs that warn listeners to be wise and smart about love and to be careful of being foolish. In that way, we can see Simon writing lyrics similar to the kind of bruising, heartbroken tales that Ephron wrote for the silver screen.
In the wistful “You Have to Hurt”, Simon is the wise and experienced girlfriend, advising a friend about the inevitability of heartache. Tennyson’s adage of it being, “Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is translated into an A/C pop song. Though most songs like “You Have to Hurt” warn lovers of being silly or foolhardy, Simon’s is novel in that she’s advocating against cynicism, despite her own experiences. It’s a struggle. She writes of the conflict, mentioning her friend’s “bitter tears” and her own “Inclination / To tell her not to drop her guard / But I didn’t have the heart.” The central thesis of the song can be summed up by the rousing chorus in which Simon hypothesizes that “You have to hurt to understand / Until you hurt until you cry / You won’t know about love / And the reason you’re alive.”
As a story, “You Have to Hurt” has a companion piece, maybe a sequel of sorts, with the plaintive “It Should Have Been Me”. In “You Have to Hurt”, Simon is singing about throwing caution in the wind and understanding that heartache and heartbreak are part of being an adult. In “It Should Have Been Me”, Simon acts out a tense melodrama drenched in regret. She’s ruing the day she ended her romantic relationship, and she returns to the piteous lyric, “It should have been me / That’s lovin’ you but how was I to know / It should have been me / I knew that I should never let you go.”
Simon has earned a reputation for writing deeply confessional songs, but she’s also a songwriter who revels in exposing insecurities and vulnerabilities, particularly of women like her and her friends. Her classic songs like “Anticipation” and “The Right Thing to Do” chronicle the complexities of adult relationships. In “It Should Have Been Me”, Simon heightens the drama (aided by the snarling electric guitar that precedes Simon’s vocals), her singing is heavy, and she sings with urgency and power. The song exposes a conflicted, flawed person who is pining for a different life, but crucially, someone who is the instigator of her soap opera. To Simon’s credit, she doesn’t idealize anything, and her heroines aren’t superwomen but flawed women who make stupid choices that they come to regret.
Some of this lovelorn remorse can be attributed to Simon’s personal life. Though her love life was the stuff of rock and roll legend in the 1970s, her celebrity became far glitzier. It’s a perceptible shift in her public persona, supported by the evolution of her songwriting. Arguably, nothing in Coming Around Again rivals her best work of the 1970s; there are still some piercing moments of reflection and candor. The honesty in songs like “You Have to Hurt” or “It Should Have Been Me” elevates what could be dismissed as merely soft-rock radio filler.
Or the extraordinary “Do the Walls Come Down” that seemingly celebrates co-dependency and desperation. Simon’s protagonist banks her happiness on her man, and not only does she center him in her universe, but she expects him to do so; the song is yet another sad tale of troubled love. She even does a bit of armchair psychology, suggesting, “Is it easier for you to say / You never loved me anyway / Or do you hide me in your attic trunk / Like a stowaway.” It’s a killer line because it’s messy and arch, and yet also prosaic with the allusion to the ‘attic trunk’, which brings up ideas of images of the home, a vital symbol of wedded bliss and domesticity. (Simon’s public identification with Martha’s Vineyard connotes gorgeous Cape Cod beach houses).
But not all of Coming Around Again is about the ruins of love, though that theme is certainly dominant. The Carly Simon of the 1970s was known for her sensuality and sexuality. She brings some of that into the album. It’s easy for her to lace her tunes with romance, given just how alluring her husky voice can get.
“Two Hot Girls (On a Hot Summer Night)” is a relatively steamy work of pop art. Like her best story songs, “Two Hot Girls” tells an engaging narrative, this time of two beautiful women who go out on the town. Simon embraces her sexuality as she sings about her and “Jenny, twinklin’ like crystal and pennies”. But like the best of story songs, Simon injects conflict and tension, with Simon’s leading lady feeling insecure, especially because her costar, Jenny, seems to have overshadowed her. “Maybe I shouldn’t have worn such a long dress,” she guesses. “Maybe he thinks I’m too young or too old / Perhaps I’m too shy or too bold.” She revels in the contradictions, and she doesn’t seem pat or easy answers. The song ends with Jenny and Dwight the Lover getting together, leaving Simon the third wheel, making her graceful exit, wondering, “Why it wasn’t me / I guess it’s just that the time’s not right.”
Though a masterful songwriter, Simon knows a good pop standard. Despite her identification with the singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, the Great American Songbook has always been essential to her work. (Six years earlier, she released her first of five collections of pre-rock pop covers). The music of composers like Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Cole Porter was prevalent a generation before Simon’s. Simon epitomized the movement in popular music that was a rebuke of the Great American Songbook.
But, given that Simon likes to depict herself as a hopeless and guileless romantic on her records, the inclusion of “As Time Goes By” makes perfect sense. Written by Herman Hupfeld, the tune became a classic because of the 1942 classic film Casablanca. As mentioned earlier, Simon’s work and persona in the 1980s primarily intertwined with romantic Hollywood cinema. In Casablanca, we see two lovers who ultimately split up, despite being in love. That lack of perfection buried in the swoony romance played out perfectly by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman makes the story so compelling and evergreen.
Simon returns to that theme of imperfect love, so including “As Time Goes By” is logical. Because this is a typical 1980s superstar release, we get a major A-List guest star, Stevie Wonder, offering a soulful, wailing harmonica. Ever the eccentric, Simon interpolates some of the dialogue from the film as she starts to riff and vamp near the end of the song, threading paraphrased iconic lines such as “Of all the gin joints” and “You played it for her”, urging Wonder to play, he is cast as the ‘Sam’ to Simon’s Ilsa. (Simon would indulge in her love of classic cinema with her 1997 album Film Noir).
Cinema would become a fruitful avenue for Carly Simon to explore. Though she had a massive hit in 1977 with the Bond theme, “Nobody Does It Better” (written by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager), and a sizable dance hit with “Why” from Soup for One in 1982, it was Simon’s embrace of thoughtful romantic comedies that would afford her a new career for the rest of the decade and into the 1990s. She became inextricably linked to Nora Ephron because of their collaboration with Heartburn. (She would also reunite with the film’s director Mike Nichols for his 1988 effort Working Girl, for which she won an Oscar.)
After “Coming Around Again” gave Simon her first top 20 hit in six years, she would work with Ephron again, scoring the writer/director’s 1992 film This Is My Life; recording the Frank Sinatra standard “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” for 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle; and providing an original Christmas carol for Ephron’s holiday caper, 1994’s Mixed Nuts. Though she would provide film music for other writers and directors, no one else shared the kind of sensibility with Simon as Nora Ephron did.
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