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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Carole King: Fantasy


1) Fantasy Beginning; 2) You've Been Around Too Long; 3) Being At War With Each Other; 4) Directions; 5) That's How Things Go Down; 6) Weekdays; 7) Haywood; 8) A Quiet Place To Live; 9) Welfare Symphony; 10) You Light Up My Life; 11) Corazon; 12) Believe In Humanity; 13) Fantasy End.

A singer-songwriter without a genuine concept album to his/her name can never properly advance to the next level of artistic recognition; and as great as Tapestry was, it could only be called a «concept» album in the broadest possible sense (where, for instance, any album written by one artist based on his/her sincere feelings about the world would automatically be «conceptual»). So, as 1973 came along and the world as of yet showed no sign of getting out of the «progressive grip», Carole King took what was arguably the biggest gamble of her career — releasing a con­ceptual suite, in which she would try on several different masks and explore a wide variety of subjects (social, political, and personal), without, however, trying to genuinely conceal the Carole King stamp on all the addressed issues. To further ensure the conceptual unity of the whole thing, there would be no breaks between songs other than the Side A/Side B transition — and the album would begin and end with a thematic intro and outro, briefly explaining and justifying the con­cept: "...I may step out outside myself / And speak as if I were someone else". Oh, and all the lyrics would be self-penned this time around.

One thing that is definitely true is that Fantasy is a big departure from Rhymes & Reasons — and a big brave departure, really, because as boring as that album might seem today, it still sold very well in 1972, based both on the continuing strength of the reputation of Carole in general and Tapestry in particular and on the overall popularity of sentimental singer-songwriterish soft-pop at the time. There was no transparent need to change the formula, and yet change it she did, no doubt, while still under the heavy influence of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and a strong nagging feeling that music should «make a difference» and stimulate people, rather than merely provide passive entertainment. So far, so good; the real question is — would she be up to the task? After all, (a) most of her music had always stayed in the love song ballpark and (b) ever since Tapestry, her writing skills seem to have been steadily declining. Getting a genuinely soulful and moving reflection on the state of humanity from her right after being stuck with a conventional-clichéd collection of simple love songs on Rhymes & Reasons would seem quite a «fantasy» indeed, under the circumstances.

And indeed, the gamble did not pay off. Fantasy sold OK enough, again, still riding on the strength of the songwriter's name, but stalled at No. 6 on the charts anyway, and all three of its singles fared even worse. The critics had, at best, tepid words to say about the results, and at worst, ended up ridiculing the poor woman for biting off far more than she could chew — suc­cessfully preventing her from trying anything like that again. (Incidentally, and maybe not even co-incidentally, a similar thing happened to Carole's most notorious song recipient in the same year: Aretha's Hey Now Hey (The Other Side Of The Sky), which also came out in 1973, was her most experimental and risk-taking album to date, and it was also panned by critics, neglected by fans and pretty much quenched her desire for musical adventuring once and for all). Occa­sional recent attempts at re-evaluation have not proven successful, either, and overall, the record continues to be regarded as a curious failure, at best.

The problem is, Fantasy is a somewhat ambitious album, and from such albums, by definition, we instinctively expect a kind of ground-shaking reaction — whereas Carole can really only operate in a «homely» mode: neither her technically weak voice, nor her approach to melody writing, nor her experience with multi-layered arrangements would ever allow her to rise to truly epic heights. And when you have this nearly epic drive without being able to provide an epic realization... well, the obvious thing to do is mention this as a major problem, say «this is no What's Goin' On» and move on.

Which would be the solution of choice for me, too, were I a major admirer of What's Goin' On: however, I do believe that, first of all, Carole King is no worse (and in some respects, better) composer than Marvin Gaye, and, second, that she feels just as strongly about all these issues and all her invented characters as Marvin feels about his — it's just that her approach is always on the shy and humble side. She's essentially an introvert making a brave, if a little terrified, attempt here to venture out into extroverted space — and even if the individual songs rarely rise to the heights of Tapestry, I'd say that as a whole, the album still works, even if some of the transitions between the tracks could have been handled much less crudely (actually, the problem is that there are no transitions — most of the time, the first song is just cut off abruptly and the next one barges in. Somebody had obviously missed her Thick As A Brick homework).

Anyway, as far as the socially-conscious part of the album is concerned, the tracks are (softly) poignant. ʽYou've Been Around Too Longʼ, alternating between paranoid funky verses, some­what more triumphant verses with brass fanfare hooks, and ominous orchestrated breaks, is as good a civil rights anthem as any. Another funky highlight, opening the second side with terrific bass work (as usual) from Mr. Larkey, is ʽHaywoodʼ, where the lady amicably reprimands a drug addict — it's not really much of a song, but kudos to Carole for getting the essence of «dark funk» just right, and the atmospheric combination of bass, brass, and orchestration on the final jamming bit eventually gets under my skin quite efficiently. ʽBeing At War With Each Otherʼ, despite the nice message, is a little too slow and mushy for my taste, but ʽBelieve In Humanityʼ, which essentially reprises the same message on the second side, is Carole's musical answer to Stevie Wonder's ʽSuperstitionʼ, with a similarly tense gradual build-up through a long verse to a final chorus explosion, followed by more fanfares from the «released» brass section — and it's a fairly catchy and involving song, and far more playful, musically, than its title would suggest.

The most daring number on the entire record is ʽWelfare Symphonyʼ, which probably could have been expanded into a much longer epic number; as it is, with less than four minutes of music, it could hardly hope to make much of an impression on the «progressive» world — but its mix of pop and jazz motives, as it eventually forgets all about its social message (lamenting about a mo­ther struggling on welfare) and plunges forward into experimental jazz territory, is as far out as Carole would ever venture in the area of composing. Of course, it would be ridiculous to compare the work to that of jazz-fusion pros, but then, this is not «Carole King trying to sound like Soft Machine» anyway — this is Carole King trying to apply, in a very simple way, some of the achievements of modern jazz music to an allegorical conveying of the state of mind of someone who "had so much trouble all her time", and even if I cannot say that she totally succeeds in this (after all, «broken» jazz chords like that are hardly my musical trick of choice when it comes to symbolically representing toil and trouble in music), the effort is still unique and admirable.   

Of course, it would be futile (and irrational) to expect a complete album of nothing but socio­political songs from Carole — and while I could not state that these simple love songs are a big step up back from the blandness of Rhymes (ʽYou Light Up My Lifeʼ is the kind of stereotypical ballad I could easily live without), stuff like ʽThat's How Things Go Downʼ reprises a certain childish freshness that was still abundant on Tapestry and Music but was almost completely re­placed by James Taylor-isms on the 1972 disaster. And although most critics hate and dismiss ʽCorazonʼ as a silly cash-in on the Latin style that shows zero understanding of it on Carole's part, I think that the track, with its catchy keep-it-simple-stupid seven-note bass/piano riff, still has a certain charm — it's not so much of a «failure» to work in a certain genre as, rather, yet another attempt to borrow a bit of that genre and adapt it to the Carole King style. The fact that the lyrics are reduced to a measly "Corazon, mi corazon, yo te quiero, mi corazon", certainly does not mean that she cannot succeed in the genre — it is more of a subtle-ironic reminder of how little the words, compared to the music, tend to matter in this sort of songs (although it is true that the chances of encountering a popular Latin American song without the word corazón in it are very close to zero, so she does know about and respect this convention at least).

Overall, Fantasy is not an overwhelming success, but it does work as a special «homebrewn concept album», and it did help pull the songwriter out of a rut, if only for a brief while. Of course, I am not saying that we should throw out thumbs up ratings to any album that «tries», just because it does (or else I'd be forced to positively rate all those Kansas records, yeeewgh); but when you have an artist as innately charismatic as Carole King, then sometimes even a rela­tive «risk-taking failure» like this is emotionally preferable to playing it safe and sound by the book, like she did on Rhymes & Reasons. Fantasy is not great, but it is curious and it is touching — especially if you try to approach it with minimum prejudice, and more from a «little person's perspective on big problems» angle than a «Marvin Gaye rip-off!» one.

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