CAROLE KING: CITY STREETS (1989)
1) City Streets; 2) Sweet Life; 3) Down To The Darkness; 4) Lovelight; 5) I Can't Stop Thinking About You; 6) Legacy; 7) Ain't That The Way; 8) Midnight Flyer; 9) Homeless Heart; 10) Someone Who Believes In You.
A six-year break from a hitherto diligent recording career meant that, by the grace of God above and lenience of Devil below, we have been deprived of that one «1986 Carole King album», with guest appearances by Rod Stewart and Jon Bon Jovi, six songs co-written with Desmond Child and Diane Warren, and produced by Phil Collins, that could have been the final agonizing scream of her reputation. Instead, she preferred to go for a (barely noticeable) acting career for a while, and remain in seclusion until her muse came rapping at the door.
And so, in the place of a hideously awful synth-pop album from 1986, we get a pleasantly boring adult contemporary album in 1989. Co-produced by Carole herself and a little-known guitarist called Rudy Guess (who would later support Carole on some of her tours and passed away in 2010), City Streets is... well, probably what you'd expect a 1989 Carole King album to be: a cozy collection of glossy, overproduced rhythm-heavy ballads, with synthesizers and electronic drums a-plenty, a solid amount of cavernous echo to give the artist the edge over the listener, and the actual music serving as little more than backing track for the vocal melody. Despite, that is, the plethora of good musicians on the record, including an unduly wasted Max Weinberg on drums, two lead guitar contributions from Eric Clapton (who, frankly speaking, was not in his best shape at the time either), and sax solos from Branford Marsalis and Michael Brecker... not that I'm a big fan of either... well, you are probably beginning to see where this is all heading.
The old charisma is still in place: Carole's voice, with all of its technical flaws, is compensated by being incapable of getting weaker with age, so whether she is singing songs about new love, old love, lost love, found love, or social injustice, she always gets her point across. The problem is that her songwriting techniques have not budged, and she has shown no interest in trying to approach the new technologies creatively — she simply takes these synthesizers and compressed guitars and electronically enhanced drums at face value, as humanity's new default means of making the same old music, and none of her musicians seem interested in directing her towards new shores. So it all just sounds like bland adult contemporary, slightly sweetened by the sound of her ever-lovely voice, but not by any genuine musical hooks.
It's too bad, because there are some potentially strong artistic statements here — I have no idea if ʽLegacyʼ is a farewell ode to Ronald Reagan (both the lyrics and the year 1989 make this a very realistic guess), but she manages to wrestle an unusually high level of intensity out of her voice for the performance, almost bordering on punkish anger, and I'd think the song deserved much more than just a wimpy accompanying acoustic rhythm track and a lax electronic piano solo. The title track, with Clapton on lead guitar, could also have been handled much better: the chorus ("oh city streets, the stories that they tell...") is a touching show of amazement and compassion, but those synthesizers, and even that mid-to-late Eighties tone of Clapton's poor Blackie, as if somebody stuffed the two of them in a sewer pipe... oh, don't get me started.
Overall, if this kind of production does not bother you too much, I'd say that City Streets is worth investigating — if anything, Carole does sound a bit refreshed, and altogether this is much better than either of the albums that bookmark it from both sides of the chronostream. But if you were expecting a comeback along the lines of Paul McCartney or even the Stones (yes, Steel Wheels at least made some musical sense back in 1989), then no, this is not this kind of comeback — not that it was even vaguely possible, considering that Carole's songwriting gift had been sorely depleted already by the mid-Seventies, and also considering her almost total dependence on mainstream production standards. Still, at least the years have not taken any toll on her natural charm, and maybe that's the best thing of all.