Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Carpenters - Ready to Die, part 2: Two Sides to the Same Story

Here's part two of my five-part essay on The Carpenters' A Song for You. Please note that the track listing I follow here is based on the cassette (if you don't remember cassettes, please leave the blog, you're too young to be here), and NOT the album. I've created a Spotify playlist you can follow here which has the songs in the order I grew up on. If you want to start from the beginning, you can read part one here.

In the age of digital, music functions differently. The age of album-long artistic statements (outside of hip-hop, which still has enough grandiosity left to believe that you will listen straight through forty-five minutes of music padded out to seventy-four minutes by mostly-not-funny sketches that serve as interstitial scene changes) is mostly behind us. We listen to our music in discrete bites, savoring this flavor or that.

But once, not so long ago, every album was it's own entity. We pressed play, strapped on the headphones, and settled into the world of the artist. The track order was set with care, with a fine eye toward a cumulative impact. In A Song for You, a seeming dichotomy between two very different styles of song tell a more compelling story than either would have alone.

“A Song for You” acts as overture. A burnt orange curtain (the color of the cover) rises on a black stage, and a single spot clicks on. She is on stage, alone, singing specifically to you, and you are the only person in the universe. She may have “acted out her love in stages” but she’s not acting now. This is the final plea of someone who is desperate to connect. She sings “When my life is over/Remember when we were together”. These are not romantic nothings; she’s at the end.

Yes, it’s a downer, but it is, above all, sincere. There’s a moment in the bridge, when she demands you “listen to the melody/‘cause my love is in there hiding,” where her passion (chaste though it may be, hot with chastity, panting with abstinence), banked until now, blossoms into flame. Cosmic “ooh’s” rise in light and fall back into darkness. A saxophone, not the cliche of the smoky sax solo, but the mold from which the cliche is created, blows through a chorus and dissipates. Then, the voices sing once again, an upwelling of emotion, feeling rising to plateau, back to the bridge, almost apologizing for how much she feels, climbing back up to climax - the angels ascend and dissolve in ecstasy into the firmament. One more repeat of the chorus, and the song fades to the black of the silence between tracks.

In "Top of the World," the sun comes up. Rainbow dirigibles float dreamily over a technicolor landscape. This is a sort of suburban psychedelia, a perma-grin that seems to permeate the world. Everything is colored so vividly as to have been dipped in day-glo. The steel guitar and Rhodes piano combination is inspired: two of the happiest sounds ever created dueting to make sure you know that things are really, really nice. The quick dip into and back out of a capella at the end is lovely, as well. This is a beautiful little slip of a song, and, in sequencing, a good call after the aching sadness of the opener. The mellowness of Karen’s voice takes the bite out of this trip - all of the edges have been sanded off, and John Denver himself would have been pleased as punch to settle down in a world this suffused with golden light.

In these two songs, the dichotomy of the album is set: heartfelt, painful confession set in opposition to an idealized, beautiful world view. Two stories, looking in different directions, trying to ignore each other. There's just one problem.

One of these stories is actually true.

Thanks for sticking with it. Come back tomorrow for part three!

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