Carly Simon’s new album, Into White, is the first musical gift to grace 2007. No longer relying upon the mechanism of a hit single to sell albums, Simon can be faithful to her muse without catering to popular taste. The muse, in this case, might be Mr. Sandman, for Into White is a luminescent collection of folk songs, lullabies, and ballads rendered in the most tender of ways. It is not an offense to say this album induces sleep since that, according to Simon’s liner notes, is partly the intention. Discovering this album with heavy eyes is actually an effective way to experience its beauty. I absorbed half the album through osmosis after curling up on the couch and falling asleep to her beautifully understated version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird”. The essence of the album might best be defined by lyrics in guitarist David Saw’s composition, “Quiet Evening”: “Some people might/ Stay up ’til it’s light/ But take this night/ For the sake of your soul.”
Whereas Simon’s last album, Moonlight Serenade (2005), swelled with string orchestras, the instrumentation on Into White is largely acoustic. Dobro, cello, piano, acoustic guitar, and percussion feature prominently with kalimba and flutes sprinkled among the 14 songs. Her voice is deep-hued amber, lower than many listeners might have registered in their memories, but oh, how she caresses the melodies with it! Take, for instance, Luiz Bonfá’s “Manha De Carnaval”, wherein Simon creates a vivid picture simply by substituting the lyrics with “la-la-la”. Each syllable is sung with nuance, as if it was an actual word. (A similar effect is woven throughout parts of “Jamaica Farewell” and “You Are My Sunshine”.)
Opening Into White is the title track, a song borrowed from Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman (1970). With Simon helming the production, “Into White” is a song that actually sounds like its title: Teese Gohl’s keyboard introduction summons images of slowly cascading balls of white light. Simon’s warm, alluvial voice invites you to escape with her through the song and into the expanse of bright, white space. Jan Hyer embellishes the dreamy ambiance with a thoughtful cello performance layered underneath the guitars, keyboards, and vocals.
One of the more poignant moments on the album features Ben Taylor and Sally Taylor — Simon’s children — lending their voices to “You Can Close Your Eyes”, a song written by their father, James Taylor. There’s a shimmering beauty that’s particular to how familial voices intertwine and the union of these three voices is singularly beautiful. If the performances on “You Can Close Your Eyes” are any indication, mother and children would do well to record an entire album together.
For casual fans of Carly Simon, i.e. those listeners who own a compilation like Anthology (2002) or Reflections (2004), Into White is an essential companion piece to her celebrated oeuvre. The production is clear and clean and her renditions do not overshadow the originals, but respectfully supplement them. In the track-by-track commentary, Simon even suggests seeking out a version of “Scarborough Fair” by Martin Carthy to understand the song’s life before Simon and Garfunkel popularized it in the late 1960s. Of course, she advises doing the same for one of her own songs revisited on this collection: “Love of My Life”, which was written for Nora Ephron’s film, This is My Life. (This listener prefers the truncated version offered on Into White.)
Ultimately, Into White serves the legacy of Carly Simon very well. Regardless of how integral Carly Simon was in anyone’s collection (or play list) before this release, one cannot deny this album’s charm or Simon’s humble intention. Into White is, indeed, a gift for the soul that holds up well beyond waking up from that afternoon nap.