Friday, 26 August 2011

The Carpenters - Yesterday Once More (1973/ No. 2/ 17 weeks/ A & M)

Those were such happy times
And not so long ago...

For me, The Carpenters stand as the absolute antithesis of easy listening, presenting song after song to the listener that look searchingly into what it means to be alive and face the likelihood of vulnerability and disappointment. This is achieved with a stoicism and a lack of grandstanding that makes their work amongst the most grown-up in pop, supported by memorable, spacious arrangements that allow the mood of the songs to truly breathe and allow the listener to enter into the world of the music.

None of this would be possible without the wonder that was Karen Carpenter's voice, my favourite in pop, with its remarkable capacity for intimacy, a sense of closeness and compassion that made Herb Alpert remark that listening to her sing was "almost like she had her head in your lap". Every song seems like a confidence entrusted to you, the listener, alone. By the time that you get to the latter records, things like 'Make Believe It's Your First Time' and 'Touch Me When We're Dancing' the effect is almost unbearable, half-literally the voice of a dying woman, her brother's way with a tune and an arrangement audibly faltering behind her.

Even in their earlier glory days, this discomfort is always present. Hence this, their biggest ever British hit, is a song about youth meeting maturity and the ultimate limitation and failure of pop music;

When I was young
I'd listen to the radio
Waitin' for my favourite songs
When they played
I'd sing along
It made me smile.

The songs are now back on the radio and the opportunity to sing along has returned for the woman who was once the girl. This provides the opportunity for the girl and the woman to meet each other face to face, like the old and young Houseman in Stoppard's Invention Of Love;

Those old melodies
Still sound so good to me

Something has gone horribly wrong for her between then and now. Love either never came, or failed, or was sought in the wrong places. The anticipation of grown-up feeling meets its actual reflection through the portal of the nostalgia show.

When it comes to the part
Where he's breaking her heart

Yes, but its a different intensity of crying now, isn't it? Not the impatient anticipation of love and incipient adulthood, but its failure or cruelty. Those songs seem both deeper and flimsier now ("Every Sha-la-la-la/ Every Wo-o-wo-o/ Every shing-a-ling-a-ling"...)

The dear old music, "back again, just like a long-lost friend", doesn't help her deal with the present.

It's as desperate as watching somebody hug themselves for comfort and understanding.

In the 1973 parent album, the effect is accentuated by the song fading into a 15-minute pastiche radio show 'Oldies Medley' of Carpenters-interpreted hits of 1963 (1960s nostalgia and so early!), the tenor of which gradually changes, from youth ('Fun Fun Fun'), to sex ('Da Doo Ron Ron'), to lost love ('The End Of The World'), to unrequited love ('Johnny Angel'), to betrayal ('The Night Has A Thousand Eyes'), to songs of anticipated love and triumph unbearable to return to... ('Our Day Will Come' and 'One Fine Day')

Flashing past her eyes like a suicide whose life flashes past her eyes.

And then a reprise for a minute. The sepulchral lines;

When I was young I'd listen to the radio...

So fine...

So fine...

are repeated on a loop, each time fading further into silence, against a single static piano chord.

The breaking string. The severing of the past from the present.

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