You don’t have to be an upper-middle-class, upper-middle-aged woman with boho sensibilities to appreciate Carly Simon’s new CD. The confessional singer-songwriter provides enough details so that anyone can identify with the autobiographical elements of the lyrics. As Billy Idol once famously put it, we’re all just dancing with ourselves when jamming to tunes, and whether one is a punk rock kid or a sophisticated old lady, a creative artist can successfully transport the listener to imagine he or she is anyone if the musician is talented enough.
And Simon has prodigious gifts that seem so effortless that it’s easy to mistake the laidback elements of her songs for laziness. That would definitely be a mistake. The carefree aspect of her music disguises the intensity of the underlying feelings expressed. Simon’s artistry can be found in how she expresses the tension between these conflicting elements.
On This Kind of Love, Simon uses Brazilian rhythms to create a calm façade as she sings about life, love, and death. The music mostly sways like a gentle, tropical breeze. She sings in an unhurried fashion, rarely revving up the tempo, instead letting the percussion section do that for her. And she rarely stretches for a note. That famous ache in her voice so prominent in her early work from the ’70s is rarely found here. Instead, she sounds mellow.
But like a carnival mask, this public image really isn’t meant to fool you as much as to set the mood. The overriding vibe of the baker’s dozen of mostly self-penned songs can be simply described as the sweetness of love, whether between friends, family, or even strangers. Simon is wise enough to understand that love doesn’t solve anything. We still feel pain. We still lose others to sickness and death, or just growing up and growing older. The deceptive depth of the lilting title tune and the ode to her children, “They Just Want You to Be There”, serve as good examples of this. The seemingly inconsequential facts laid out add up to make compelling pictures of modern relationships.
Of course, the writer of “You’re So Vain” knows how to be snarky as well. The perkiest song on the new disc is the diatribe against venal ambition, “People Say a Lot”. The first person lyrics tell of what someone will do when she wants to take your place at work: the person will befriend you and then stab you in the back. Simon constructs some nasty, clever wordplay during the six-and-a-half-minute playlet. Consider the deliciousness of “She was awfully good at fire / She burnt bridges where she could / She turned young men into torches / She had a way with wood” sung over layered percolating Latin rhythms and background vocalists cooing “Fiery, fiery hussy burn”, “Do away with wood”, and other whispered innuendoes. The track ends appropriately with snippets of dialogue from that wonderful bitchfest of a flick, All About Eve, referencing its glamorous take on female drive and envy.
Simon’s new disc is on Hear Music, the Starbucks label responsible for recent albums by Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, and her ex-husband, James Taylor. No doubt this release will be aimed at the same baby boomer demographic as those discs, and it will probably sound great as background music in a coffee shop. However, Simon’s record deserves a more intimate listening experience to be fully appreciated. Don’t mistake its pleasant surfaces for laidback listening. There’s much more to it than initially meets the ear.