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‘Tapestry’ at 50: Carole King’s Roadmap Homeward

Cover of "Tapestry" by Carole King
Cover of "Tapestry" by Carole King By Courtesy of Carole King/Ode Records
By Alejandro C. Eduarte, Crimson Staff Writer

“We’re gonna do a song for you called ‘So Far Away.’

A third of the way through Carole King’s 1971 concert on the BBC for her sophomore album “Tapestry,” She smiles on the pause, punctuates a chuckle just shy of the microphone, and closes her eyes.

How to sum up fifty years?

Let the piano tell it. That instrument, invented circa 1700, lasted two hundred and seventy-one years until Carole King came along to sit there and flip it around just so.

It was made to support that voice. Those extremes of volume, that high note that wavers on the edge of breaking the microphone and the booth (or the track entire), and then the drop into softness that takes the whole band with it — that’s her. King’s phrasing opens up space between how the feeling feels and how one says it. She renders it a bit ghostly. It’s in that way, in her liveness, she always veers a hair off the beat; the whole song could go under if she let it.

She doesn’t talk much of herself except to laud her band and gesture at her audience. Women in the crowd are shadowed in blue, with that ‘70s-folk-mom look, boot-cut jeans and sunglasses in tow. Blues runs underneath the music they hear and through its chords; folk whistles in its lyrics — the simplest things veil the most tightly latticed architecture. It’s these elemental considerations which carried King’s oeuvre far and have been masterfully riffed-upon: Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” are oft-cited permutations (and so grandiose — those soul-track strings!) of King’s work, which took public recognition along with her four Grammys in 1971 and her netting of that tricky trophy called Album of the Year.

King at the time was barely thirty. This is an album made under ‘70s conditions — of disco, Nixon’s antagonisms, new supposed post-civil rights legal freedoms — to loosen up time, put on some free-flowing clothes and sway at home or the piano bar down the way. She gives the people a full silk alchemy on the songs, lets them know what she does.

Anything that becomes a de facto greatest-hits album, as “Tapestry” is, tells on itself: Audiences and critics, upon its blazing success, rush to justify the sudden ascendancy as anything other than lightning luck. Expectations and refutations fly about, often untethered from craft, but in this BBC performance King proves why she made it work: It’s easy. In a 2018 interview at the Library of Congress, she detailed the album’s recording, “I could play comfortably in any level of light as long as I could see the piano keys and the lyrics. We often cut three tracks in a session. The whole album took three weeks to record and mix.”

These songs, recorded briskly, squeeze into them much longer time. “You’ve Got a Friend” (one of the sweetest rock-back-and-forth songs ever put to record) convinced its listener of the candor while the song rolled on and the wanting distance between friends collapsed. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” was an argument, a plea to reframe how one conceives the temporality of love (and communicating it) entirely. On “I Feel the Earth Move,” she projected the soul-stirring element of her project (“I feel the sky tumbling down”) up into a calamitous, towering plane. This is no small task. One can feel the tug of these demands pulling on the music: That’s why at first, it might surprise a listener that something so gentle can get so heady, bowl one over, sound so unendurably thick. Striving to organize all this into the form of an album is surely tough, diffuse work — of course, until you get there.

“Way Over Yonder'' is the only time in the show King is onstage with a woman. King is in pink with a pendant around her neck; Abigale Haness beside her in a lavender blue. In perfect vocal sync they sway in and out, over the black open-back grand piano. One can locate that invisible yet knowing ease, or at least an imitation of it, in the pantheon of balladists who’ve come after, from Amy Winehouse to Mariah Carey to Roberta Flack. It binds them together.

At the penultimate mark of the performance, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” opens a tunnel into “Up On The Roof.” King jockeys the band from one song to the next to demonstrate how love pulls you in its vicinity, how it is mostly the heightened flow of one discordant encounter into the next. Love is the bridge and the passenger. There are plenty ways to fall into closeness with King: One can see her on Broadway, buy her vinyls, fall into the frenzy of admiration she’s bunched up and brought to her feet. And it’s all to capture her sensibility, to feel how it strokes and whistles and hums, to imagine you are there with her. Think of a remote place with crickets in the country air, sweat lacing your face in beads, and King ending the last song with her head up, opening her mouth to softly chuckle, in glimmering surprise, at how beautiful, how lucky it is, that you came to see her: you and yours and all those who snuck in behind. You’ll never leave, you don’t have to — but when you do, you’ll be better. King can do this anywhere. She can make you feel, even if it’s just her, you got one now — a forever friend, a good one. You're in awe, or rather beyond it, of how someone can be alive in quite this way.

On “Home Again,” one of the album’s only songs left out of the BBC show, King ponders — and the line is so sharp, so moved, it feels like the holding in of fifty years of breath — “Sometimes I wonder if I’m ever gonna make it home again.” So exhale; get close. Wonder no more.

— Staff writer Alejandro C. Eduarte can be reached at alejandro.eduarte@thecrimson.com.

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