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

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Carpenters - Ready to Die, Part 5: Misplaced Childhood

An ongoing series on The Carpenters' A Song for You.
Part one here.
Part two here.
Part three here.
Part four 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 grew up in the town of Downey, California, in the County of Los Angeles. Her folks moved there in the 60's with her and her brother. She lived with them until she was 26 years old, and she moved back in towards the end of her life. It's a common enough story, especially these days, with confused and battered 20-somethings moving back in with their folks, thrown back by an economy that has no place for them.

The differences are pretty crucial here, though. Karen was incredibly successful when she moved back in. She was a celebrity, a pop star, gifted with one of the most beautiful voices of her time, beloved by millions. 

She was also anorexic, distraught over her divorce, and emotionally fragile. What was she looking for, moving back home shortly before she left therapy and died of heart failure? According to the myth of Karen's life, her parents were controlling and critical, and nothing she ever did was good enough, but it might be more complicated than that, and the album provides some interesting clues.

Again, we have the expert sequencing of this album coming into play with “Crystal Lullaby” up next. They know you’re a little raw, a little dicked in the head from the fighting and the confusion of the last song, and so they take you right back to childhood. This is regression at its finest, mommy and daddy coming in after the nightmare to soothe your brow. Richard (the nearest thing we have to an authority figure in this landscape of alternating pain and fantasy) sings the pre-chorus, his double-tracked vocals carrying you away, just like the lyric. This is probably the most sentimental and, superficially, the least interesting song on the album. 

A case could be made, however, that here the Carpenters were singing about an idealized childhood experience that neither of them had ever lived. The ache in Karen’s voice is like the ache of country music when some hat act sings about small towns and simple values (when you know they grew up in, like, Dallas). It’s nostalgia for the never-lived - like hipsters paying tribute to 80’s and 90’s fashions they were too young to have worn the first time around. In this case, however, it’s nostalgia for a healthy childhood and a supportive family life, and someone to sing you to sleep.

In the next tune, “It’s Going to Take Some Time,” Karen sings, once again, of lost love, a theme already explored at length on this album. Everybody knows this is nowhere, albeit with her putting on a brave face for us. They’re on that Fender Rhodes piano sound, again, double tracked with an acoustic piano, in a perfectly pleasurable melancholy. Kicking flute solo in the instrumental break, too.

Now, “Bless the Beasts and the Children,” though it might seem on first glance to be pretty tame, has an earnest passion that belies its simple subject matter. Karen’s voice on the chorus is so sincere, so as-close-to-full-throttle-as-The-Carpenters-get, that she sells it. “Light their way/When the darkness surrounds them,” she sings - a plea, a prayer, a hymn. There are a couple of songs about childhood on this album, and every one seems to be calling back to an unreclaimable past, begging for a do-over.

Karen never really felt like anything she did was good enough, never felt like she was good enough. This is not an attitude with which we come into the world - it's learned. Something was missing in her life - a sense of love and acceptance, and as hard as she worked to make herself worthy of those things, she never really felt truly loved or understood.

The only real solace she seemed to find was in music, but as the final songs on the album indicate, even in music there was no escape.

Come back tomorrow for the final part. Thanks for reading!

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