Thursday, 4 August 2011

The Carpenters - Only Yesterday (1975/ No. 7/ 10 weeks/ A & M)

Although it was one of their biggest hits, I'd be surprised if Only Yesterday was one of many peoples' very favourite Carpenters songs. The effect of listening to the single is a bit like hearing a Carpenters Greatest Hits Medley, reminding you of treasured moments and effects in their other songs.

In particular, of three of their previous songs, perhaps their greatest; from 'Rainy Days and Mondays' and 'Goodbye to Love' the very personal sense of loneliness explained and confided to you, the listener, alone; and returning from 'Yesterday Once More', the yesterday motif - that earlier single an almost unbearable suicide note of a song, as upsetting to hear as watching someone forlornly hugging themselves for comfort.

The yesterday of 'Only Yesterday' is performing a very different narrative function here, however. Instead of signifying the irretrievable hopes of a teenager, this yesterday is the literal immediate past, bringing a sudden change of fortune for the singer in the form of a new boyfriend. Much as the appeal of listening to The Carpenters lies in desperately wanting things to come right for the singer, it has to be said that cheerful optimism was probably not their strongest facet, and is the sort of clean-cut white bread thing about them that people who dislike The Carpenters find so grating.

So 'Only Yesterday is very much a record of two halves. The first eighty seconds of the song - I've been so unhappy - belong to Karen, and then - "Now that I've found you!" - Richard takes charge with a top-of-the-range-1975-hi-fidelity-ingenious-bells-and-whistles easy listening arrangement. Both halves are good, but the second doesn't carry the emotional depth of the first.

Karen Carpenter's treatment of the first verse is a masterclass in phrasing and inflection, giving conviction to the story of desolation turning into hope. She starts by emphasising the universality of her situation, stoically sharing troubles with the listener;

(A slow drumbeat, some airy keyboards)

After long enough of being alone,
everyone must face their share of loneliness

There's an endearing sibilance at the end of that"loneliness". And then a confidence is shared, as she starts to sing her particular story to the listener.

In my own tiime nobody knew...
the (throat contracts, the next word sung chokingly) *pain* I was goin' through...
And waitin' was all my heart could do.

This making the best of things, being honest to herself about her vulnerability... Karen Carpenter is like a Terrence Rattigan heroine relocated to 1970s Los Angeles. During the next few lines of tentative hope, she allows a little sunlight and breeze into her singing;

(still desolate) Hope (sudden, vulnerable rise) was all I haad until you came.
Maybe you can't seee (might lighter, with a smile) how much you mean to me...

And then a delirious note of optimism bursts through;

You were the DAWWN breaking the niight...
The promise of morning liiiight!

It sounds delirious because you worry for her as you realise how elemental this feeling is - how everything is at stake for her, the new-found love as necessary for this woman to live as light is for a plant to photosynthesise. This change in her situation creates new, sensuous, possibilities for the singer;

Filling the world (mouth relishing the next word) surroundin' me.

Up to this point, the presence of Richard Carpenter has been pretty muted. Only a very close listening reveals his touch - through a clever arrangement which unobtrusively continues to add new orchestration to a sparse-sounding recording. He's been saving himself up for the chorus, which starts relatively subtly by building up the singer's new mood of tentative optimism;

(multi-tracked Karens) When I hold you -
(multi-tracked Karens and Richards!) baby, baby, feels like maybe, things will be all right.
Baby, baby, your love's made me -

And this is the precise moment when the single changes over from being about the sister's vulnerability to being about the brother's delight in using the studio's resources to playful effect. There's a sudden change of gears;

Free as a song!
Singin' for ever!
Only yesterday! When I was sad and I was lonely -
You showed me the way! to leave the past -
and all its tears behind me!

For years, whenever I heard this, I had a nagging sense of familiarity. I now realise that *this* is what I was being reminded of - .

As a narrative, the song is effectively over by this point. What follows is less of a disappointment once you know how the record goes. A cornucopia of Richard studio tricks ensues - sunny harmonies, clarinets, a swiftly abandoned skwalling rock guitar (a reprise of 'Goodbye to Love's surprise masterstroke), a sax solo, castanets, bells, chiming guitars... Best of all though, is some quietly bonkers drum rolls from Karen. She sounds like she's enjoying herself, and the sense of fun and possibility carries over to the listener.

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