Album Review: Carol King’s “Tapestry”

LPLogoMusic - Album Review: Carol King's "Tapestry"

 

Tapestry

caroleking - Album Review: Carol King's "Tapestry"

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit Carole King’s Tapestry, the second act that turned a master songwriter into a music legend.

Carole King was a 15-year-old pianist in a poodle skirt when she first took the elevator up to the Manhattan office of a record label with her stack of sheet music and her Big Apple tenacity, and asked to audition her songs. It was 1957. As a Brooklyn teenager, the daughter of a piano teacher and firefighter who separated when she was young, King had a front-row seat to the genesis of rock’n’roll. She wondered if she could be a part of it.

Too smart to then be considered cool, too determined to care, King would sign her first contract with ABC-Paramount that same year. She was a married mother of two by the age of 20, living in suburban New Jersey with her husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, a brooding intellectual who she met at Queens College and ushered into music. As they co-wrote singles for stars to sing into the stratosphere—Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion,” the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” among them—King’s own life was a source of perspective. She and Goffin worked in a cubicle with an upright piano and an overflowing ashtray at the publishing company Aldon Music, a veritable pop factory across from the Brill Building. King spiked their A.M. mini-masterpieces with the R&B melodies of her youth and brightened them with the grandeur of her beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein. Many were composed in single nights while her children were asleep.

If that’s all she ever did, she would still have been a legend. It was those pop standards that led John Lennon to remark that, when he and Paul McCartney first got together, they wanted to be “the Goffin-King of England.” It was those songs that were given to Randy Newman in demo form as examples of perfect writing (he has called King his hero), and that made James Taylor too nervous to speak to her on the night they met. But it was only a first act.

Tapestry was King’s second album as a bandleader, primary songwriter, unvarnished singer, and tentative recording artist—an American master of melody whose introspection became a phenomenon. At 29, she had been in the music industry for over a decade, outlasting the sea change away from bubblegum music and towards the singer-songwriter. She was skeptical of stardom. (“I didn’t think of myself as a singer,” King has said, and having written for Aretha, who could blame her?) She had also divorced her lyricist. Gathering her daughters, Louise and Sherry, and her cat, Telemachus, King moved cross-country to the Hollywood Hills, where she undertook the time-honored pop-music tradition of self-reinvention by way of self-discovery. In time, she grew spiritual, becoming a follower of the artistically beloved Swami Satchidananda. Crucially, she finally began to write her own lyrics in earnest, penning more than half the songs, and all of the peaks, of Tapestry alone.

King’s lyrics are a testament to the potential of the simplest phrases when heightened by an uncluttered arrangement and an unfettered truth, the definition of classic. “You’re beautiful,” “you’ve got a friend,” “you’re so far away”—her words are conversational, economic, and nearly telepathic, as if reading our collective mind. In songs that mix girl-group longing, Broadway balladeering, blues, soul, and wonder, Tapestry used the room itself as an instrument. The producer, King’s longtime publisher Lou Adler, wanted it to sound like the understated and sought-after demos she recorded when writing for other artists, with the tactile intimacy of a woman at the piano singing straight to you. The result was precise but not overly manicured. Owing to her newfound spirituality, there is a sweet serenity to Tapestry. Here was a ’50s rock’n’roller from Brooklyn having journeyed through the ’60s to become a ’70s lady of the Canyon, making music that seemed to elude time completely.

Among an ever-present array of incense and candles, King recorded Tapestry at A&M Studios in Hollywood, in Studio B. The Carpenters were in Studio A—they would record King’s “It’s Going to Take Some Time” the following year—and in Studio C, Joni Mitchell was working on her confessional masterpiece, Blue. King’s band would sneak into Mitchell’s studio when she wasn’t around (better piano in there), and Mitchell would come by to sing backing vocals, alongside James Taylor, on the Tapestry recordings of “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” According to Sheila Weller’s chronicle of the era, Girls Like Us, Mitchell had been known to call “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” her favorite song of all time.

The songs of Tapestry are like companions for navigating the doubts and disappointments of everyday life with dignity. Having composed hundreds of singles for others, King knew what they needed: raw feeling, careful phrasings, a little sparkle. She lets her voice break to show that it’s alive. The soulful “It’s Too Late”—co-written with Toni Stern, a then-unknown lyricist who King called “a quintessential California girl”—feels like a grown-up girl-group anthem, wherein the best part of breaking up is, it turns out, clarity. The gospel-tinged backing vocals of “Way Over Yonder,” sung by Merry Clayton, charge its calm with resilience, dreaming of “true peace of mind” and “a garden of wisdom.” By 1971, King was not only practicing yoga but teaching it at the Integral Yoga Institute, and an attendant sense of collectedness carries Tapestry. The Broadway-ready “Beautiful,” which came to King while riding the subway, is a loving-kindness meditation banged out to a Gershwin-like orchestra of piano chords: an appeal to the world to choose a positive outlook, to put forth what you’d like to receive.

As King applied her Brill Building-era chops to newfound bohemianism, perhaps it was a harder East Coast mentality that kept her lyrics concrete and her sound percussive. The jaunty Tapestry opener “I Feel the Earth Move” is both a testament to King’s groundedness and her emotional attunement. Inspired in part by the Ernest Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls—the characters make love in a forest and feel “the earth move out and away from under them”—she wrote the song early in ’71. On her birthday, February 9, the catastrophic San Fernando earthquake occurred. “I feel the earth move under my feet/I feel the sky tumblin’ down,” King sings with bluesy swagger, channeling the tectonic power of infatuation.

Before Tapestry, King formed a folk-rock band called the City in her Laurel Canyon living room with two fellow New York transplants, Danny Kortchmar and Charles Larkey (who would become her second husband). They released one fantastic album, 1968’s Now That Everything’s Been Said; the title track, co-written with Stern, is an exquisite gem of a kiss-off. Somewhat astonishingly, Kortchmar and Larkey were former members of the Fugs: the East Village beat-punk antagonists whose anti-professionalism was more or less a total inversion of what you might think of when you think of Carole King. But in her memoir, King writes that her new collaborators pushed each other to “sing beyond what they believed was the edge of their ability.” You can hear that in how King often maxes out her limited alto range, reaching for something just beyond her. She called her own music “soft rock,” but the brink of her singing sounds deliberately loud. Through the lovely melody of “Home Again,” King’s lyric captures the precise feeling of trying to be present when it’s impossible: “Snow is cold/Rain is wet/Chills my soul to the marrow/I won’t be happy till I see you alone again.” King’s voice presses against the lyric—“marrow”—with evermore volume, vigor, and makes it ecstatically real: the furthest place the note can go.

King so often wrote songs for others. At the time, she was touring in James Taylor’s band; she’d played piano on the sensitive, illuminated ballads of 1970’s Sweet Baby James. And though Tapestry’s peaks—“So Far Away” and “You’ve Got a Friend”—weren’t technically written for Taylor, she said she penned them with his sunstruck sound in mind. “So Far Away” came to her on the road while missing her then-husband, ex-Fug Charles Larkey. It is the record’s sparest song, a marvel that seems composed to make your heart race: the feelings of loneliness, transience, and long-distance yearning (life on tour, that is) are present in every cascading chord. “So far away/Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” King sings, each syllable a surface of inquiry. The borderlessness of King’s composition makes this liminal state feel infinite—as if bittersweet were itself a key.

There are few promises in the history of pop music as generous or exalted as “You’ve Got a Friend.” “Ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend/When people can be so cold?” King sings, giving gravity to every note, as if to ask: What could matter more? It’s a song that seems to stare at you, no matter who you are, and affirm pop’s most profound capacity: to simply be reached. “You’ve Got a Friend” became a No. 1 hit for Taylor when he recorded his more genial version for his own 1971 record, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, on which King played. (She often said she felt they were recording one continuous album, sharing many musicians.) Taylor had long been inspired by King, and later, it was he who encouraged King to sing her own songs. It makes “You’ve Got a Friend” an exquisite ode to friendship, interconnectedness, and mutual inspiration. King’s superior take amplifies its hope almost to a shout.

King also recorded two of her and Goffin’s standards for Tapestry—“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” and “Natural Woman”—and while you couldn’t quite call her versions definitive, they carry the bespoke power of a woman reckoning with her history in song. For one, they were the bookends to her musical-marital partnership. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was her and Goffin’s first hit, for the Shirelles, the tune that made them full-time writers after Goffin finally quit his day job as a chemist. “Natural Woman” was their last before divorcing. In musical second acts, many artists attempt to split with their former selves entirely. But King had a past she could own.

She was 19 when “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” first came out; she wrote the music, arranged the strings using a book on orchestration borrowed from the public library, and played piano on the recording. The lyric was a kind of response to the Shirelles’ previous hit, “Tonight’s the Night,” but turned “sideways and upside down,” King has said. For 1960, it was rather radical: the voice of a clear-eyed young woman accepting the possibility of a one-night stand—“Can I believe the magic in your sighs?”—despite her longing for true love, resigned but not fooled. It became the first No. 1 hit of the girl group era. King and Goffin were so proud of the song that they engineered the doorbell of their home in suburban New Jersey to play its lovelorn hook every time a visitor arrived. But perhaps it was a cautionary tale for their own doomed marriage. On Tapestry, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was a raw emblem of King’s own complex teenage years, and she sang it in careful measures, as if savoring the memory in each note.

King and Goffin wrote their monumental Aretha single after Atlantic exec Jerry Wexler pulled up to them while walking on Broadway, rolled down the window of his limo, and asked them to craft a hit for her with the title “Natural Woman.” They drove home to New Jersey, listened to R&B and gospel on the Black-programmed WNJR, and poured out a piece of history: “When my soul was in the lost and found/You came along to claim it.” Of course King’s “Natural Woman” does not summon the heavens with the same earth-shattering force as the Queen of Soul’s version, released in 1967. When King performed it live on tour with Taylor three years later, she would ask the audience to please imagine it as it once was—a demo for Aretha, and part of her life story. But the grasping of King’s “you make me”s and the fluttering of her “feel”s are charged with the force of a person attempting to turn herself inside out. In the voice of Aretha, “Natural Woman” is glory. In the voice of King, it is, like all of Tapestry, an act of pure conviction.

Though barely promoted by King herself, Tapestry spent 15 weeks as the No. 1 album in the U.S. upon its release, and stayed on the charts for five years. King won four Grammys for Tapestry in 1972, more than anyone had ever received at once, and it was the first time that the New York award ceremony was broadcast live on television. But King didn’t attend to collect the awards herself. She chose to remain in California with her newborn third child, Molly, instead.

It’s telling: There’s an unmistakable maternal energy to Tapestry. Throughout King’s career, she has recalled moments when her responsibilities merged, in which she’d have her baby in the playpen at the studio or be breastfeeding in between takes. Toni Stern has said that, while writing for Tapestry, King would be “playing the bass with her left hand and diapering a baby with her right.” King herself said that having kids kept her “grounded in reality,” which is audible in every loosely calibrated note of Tapestry. Her next artistic achievement was a collection of children’s music, 1975’s Really Rosie, in collaboration with author Maurice Sendak. A reworking of “Where You Lead”—rewritten, King has said, to sound less submissive—became the theme song to the mother-daughter sitcom “Gilmore Girls,” sung by King and her daughter Louise.

I was a teenager myself when my own mom—noticing my tendency to remain locked in my bedroom with Mitchell and Bob Dylan on an endless loop—gave me her CD copy of Tapestry. I have to admit, at 17, I didn’t get it. Maybe “I Feel the Earth Move” sounded too conventional to my angsty and emotionally blown-out high school tastes, which is too bad. I’d love to imagine an alternate universe where Tapestry lifted my ever-solemn adolescent moods, King’s voice saying you’re beautiful and you’ve got a friend in no uncertain terms. But with records there are always second chances. It is still possible to play Tapestry and feel that someone is looking out for you.

Unlike Dylan or Mitchell, King’s lyrics don’t immediately scan as political or poetic, and when Tapestry came out, the record was criticized by some as “lightweight.” In the wake of the civil rights movement and in the midst of women’s liberation, 1971 was the year that Marvin Gaye sang “What’s Going On” and Helen Reddy proclaimed “I am woman/Hear me roar.”

But there was nothing light about a woman who came of age in the ’50s controlling her destiny, constructing and reconstructing her existence at will, choosing a life of both home and adventure, of heart and mind, and narrating her multitudes, the tapestry of her experience, with popular song. If it feels light, that is a feat; it feels comforting, that is a gift. For all the teen-dreaming of those early Goffin-King tunes, there’s little fantasy on Tapestry: It’s real life.