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 20, 2012

The Carpenters - Ready to Die: "A Song For You" as Suicide Note (part 1)

This is part 1 of a 5 part essay on The Carpenters' album A Song For You. I hope you like it!
(UPDATE: Looks like it'll be a bit more than 5! Check out subsequent days for further parts.)

Pop is the jester of modern music. While Rap is the new murder ballad and Dance is white noise for smoothing brain creases to blissful, oblivious ecstasy (Indie shuffles a few steps, shrugs, scribbles in its notebook, dreams of rocking hard), Pop can sneak in emotional truth under the radar. It makes no claims, no demands, promising only a smattering of pleasure for your three minutes investment. At the same time, it’s this very lack of pretense that allows Pop to do what many of the other genres are too cool to do - tell tales of obsession, madness, sorrow.

Karen Carpenter, along with her brother Richard as The Carpenters, made quintessential pop music of beauty and pain, smuggling in the angst under cover of precious arrangements, earworm hooks, and Karen’s silken voice. They made a career out of lovely, inconsequential, middle-of-the-road radio fodder, but they did one work of genius, an album that encapsulates a strange melding of pathos and prettiness: A Song for You.

This album, one of my parent’s favorite albums, the soundtrack to a hundred road trips in my youth, became almost an icon of pop music for me. The cover was simple - a silvery white heart, almost resembling a locket from a necklace, on a burnt orange field beneath the black Carpenters logo. Inside lay smooth, friendly, and, most of all, accessible music. But beneath the charming surfaces ran a river of reckless heartache, a pleasurable, almost luxuriant, wallowing in pain. It was seductive, and unsettling, and most of all, sad. Oceans of sad, a bummer the size of the world.

The delivery system for all this sorrow? That voice. Karen Carpenter’s contralto soothed and caressed. Yes, she sang of suffering, but it was a shared pain, and her voice ran its fingers through your hair and told you everything would be over soon. It was the seduction of no hope.

She sang from the bottom of a broken heart.

Oh, there were the funny songs, too, the songs that Richard sang, the clever little “Intermission" (“We’ll be right back/After we go/To the bathroom” all sung in a faux baroque that they must have thought was hilarious), but these were just interludes, a little wink to keep things light.

Pleasantries aside, this album, almost despite itself, told a story, and the story it inadvertently told was the story of a singer who knew she was going to die.

Come back tomorrow for part 2!

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