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

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Carpenters - Ready to Die, Part 4: Love According to Karen

An ongoing series on The Carpenters' A Song for You.
Part one here.
Part two here.
Part three here.
A Spotify songlist based on the track order for the cassette can be found here.
Just for the record - all sentiments expressed are speculation. Think of it as a pop-psychology fantasia on one of my favorite albums. Thanks for reading.

Karen Carpenter dated. It's hard to imagine her dating, when you see videos of her from the mid to late-70's. She has a frailty that seems almost childlike, and all the sexiness of a wounded-bird. But apparently she dated some guys, including Tony Danza (!) and Mark Harmon. There isn't a lot of talk about those episodes. She married once, in 1980, and divorced two years later. All in all, with all the touring and working, there doesn't seem to have been a lot of room for romance in her life. Her deepest relationships seemed to have been with her family, and her music. So what did love look like to her? There are clues in the next songs.

After Richard has done his best to make nice in the previous couple of tunes, Karen eases us back into pathos with what at first plays like a declaration of love. On deeper listening, however, something less than healthy is revealed. In “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” we’re back in Phil Collins territory, with the pretty pretty music covering up some seriously disturbed sentiment. A mellow, syrupy-stringed bridge does not help to lighten up the line “When there’s no getting over that rainbow/When my smallest of dreams won’t come true.” There’s a resignation in this song that she can’t quite smile her way through. She’s singing to her lover, almost in gratitude, but this song sounds like if dude ever leaves her, the next time he sees her will be in a casket.

And the gold medal in the self-pity olympics is... the next song: “Goodbye to Love.” Speaking of darkness, speaking of resignation, we’ve got, as our opening gambit, “I’ll say goodbye to love/No one ever cared if I should live or die....” There’s quite a bit of this, and just when we’re about to give up and take a bath with a toaster, the guitars come in, and suddenly we’re rocking as hard as the Carpenters ever rock in the history of ever. It’s only a taste, though, and then we’re right back into the smooth vocal stylings, singing despair into the beautiful void.  After one more verse, the void itself seems to sing, heavenly “ah” vocals spinning sorrow into golden light. And over top of that comes, and you’ll just have to imagine this, but see, here descends Jesus, playing one of the most gorgeous guitar solos recorded by anyone. Seriously - go listen to it right now. It’s dirty, 
epically melodic, and somehow perfect for a song that makes a religion out of the phrase “Woe is me.”

“Hurting Each Other” is another example of this. Karen’s such a victim. As a child, listening on my parents stereo to this album, I found myself horrified and disturbed by this song. “Why would they hurt each other?” My only understanding of “hurt” was violence, and the thought of two people who obviously love each other (“No one in the world/ever had a love as sweet as my love/For nowhere in the world/Could there be a boy as true as you, love”) doing such violence seemed frightening. Ah, to always be so naive.This was the sound of a stomachache, red and black and grainy and angry and sad all at the same time. This was despair, smoothed until it shone, deep velvety darkness.

And there we have the three versions of the gospel according to Karen: 1. "I'm nothing without you;" 2. "Nobody loves me;" and 3. "I love you so much; why do you hurt me?" If anybody says any of these words to you, run, don't walk, and yet here we find one of the most beautiful voices of a generation singing all three within minutes of each other. I don't envision these as the sentiments of a mature heart and mind. 

Where does such arrested emotional development have its roots? How does one end up simultaneously at the top of the charts, and yet so seemingly disconnected? Could living at home with your parents until you're 26 have something to do with it?

Next: Visions of a childhood that never was.

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