There is this typical conversation I seem to have all too often. The setting is usually something like this: music is being pumped out of the supermarket speakers, or I get into someone’s car and the radio is on, and I have a gut reaction and make it clear how much I hate the song that’s playing. Here is the dialogue, more or less, that usually follows:
“What, do you hate pop music?”
“No,” I reply, “Just not the pop music they make today.”
“So what pop music do you like?”
“I don’t know, that music they played on the radio in the early 70s, that stuff was great.”
It’s a toss-up whether people know what music I’m talking about when I say that, but really that’s not the point. The critical matter here is that I have either had or seen this conversation play out way too many times to ever forget it. My takeaway, after years of discussing the validity of modern music, is that I’m not the only one who has expressed this sentiment. There are plenty of people that cannot stand the music that is popular (heretofore referred to as “pop”) in this day and age.
Yes, I know that pinpointing that specific time when pop music was “good” can be nebulous, but I feel validated knowing there a few albums I can point at and say “look at that! That record was insanely popular, was played in every juke joint and on every radio station in the nation in its day, and on top of that it’s damn good.” It’s rare that I feel that way about anything current. Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” comes to mind, but that’s definitely an outlier.
In the early 70s, at least, there seemed to be a steady stream of radio-friendly, artistically-viable music pumped from every speaker in the nation (and yes, I am currently falling into a dangerously nostalgic state as I write this). Some people have said I look back too much, that I was born in the wrong time. To ease my pain from being cosmically removed from my proper place in the universe, I have to listen to an album that is truly timeless. Only a few come to mind.
So I take my medicine. I simply put on “Tapestry,” lay down on the carpet, and pretend it’s 1971. Carole King’s voice begins to flow through my ears, transforming into electrical signals that course through my brain, and I am comforted to my core with the music equivalent of drinking a hot cup of herbal tea on a winter night.
Her single “I Feel the Earth Move,” released in April 1971, plays from my speakers in 2018, an era that now seems foreign to me. Everything that has happened in the 47 years since fades away—flashing disco balls over a lit up floor as Donna Summer’s voice rings out, Prince gyrating his hips as the crowd screams “Purple Rain”, even my own birth on the day that Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” was released—All gone, all ripped away like a veil to reveal the clear sun of Carole’s voice. She is sitting on the windowsill, the cat has come to say hello, and she is singing.
Is it strange that to me the image on the cover of “Tapestry” could just as easily be Annie Dillard ready to go take a walk near Tinker Creek? Such is the collation of the two that has happened in my mind. At that moment, in the early 70s, there was such an innocence in both of their worlds, that of singer-songwriter music and nature writing. I sometime wonder if the two ever met; surely they enjoyed each other’s work. Like Dillard’s spare but spiritually exaltant book, “Tapestry” is deceptively simple, baring its soul with intimate, open-hearted songwriting that speaks to a wide-eyed emotional freedom that would inform the genre for decades. Building off of rhythm and blues structures, the album strikes a perfect balance between pop songwriting and salt of the earth sensibility. It’s hard to see another album like it being made again.
This is partially because every song on the album is a stunner. You probably know half of them just from being alive. “You’ve Got A Friend” was made even more famous by James Taylor (who appears on this album), but I prefer King’s heartwarming version here. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” previously recorded by Aretha Franklin (but written by King), absolutely blows you away on “Tapestry,” oscillating between quiet gratitude and raw emotional power. The song starts out as a soft trickle of feelings and soon transforms into a storm of life-affirming love. If you don’t feel something, you may not have feelings.
What makes “Tapestry” so great is how it sticks to the basics. There are no screaming guitar solos, no unbelievable piano rolls, nor anything that technically impressive happening here. There are just songs put together so well that they brim with a reserved class and a homegrown innocence you can’t buy these days. The harmonies consistently give my skin goosebumps and my heart jumps with joy everytime the soulful chord changes move into an exaltant crescendo. It is the rare complete album, every song an essential thread in a beautiful weaving of songs and stories.
So next time someone asks me if I like pop music, I might just nod my head and send them a Spotify link to “Tapestry.” Maybe they’ll get it, and maybe they won’t. I won’t care, though, when I’m back at home curled up on the couch with a cup of hot tea, my eyes closed as King sings “Way Over Yonder,” her voice spilling over me like the sweet sound of a mountain river in spring:
“Ooh maybe tomorrow
I’ll find find my way
To the land where the honey runs
In rivers each day
And the sweet tastin’ good life
Is so easily found
A way over yonder
That’s where I’m bound”