Monday, 16 November 2009

Carpenters: Masters of Melancholy

Carpenters remain one of the most unfairly maligned musical acts of the past and present. Superficially, they are known for their light, almost pristine tones that characterised much of their greatest commercial success in the early 1970s.

As the All Music Guide explains:

With their light, airy melodies and meticulously crafted, clean arrangements, the Carpenters stood in direct contrast with the excessive, gaudy pop/rock of the '70s; yet they became one of the most popular artists of the decade, scoring 12 Top Ten hits, including three number one singles. Karen Carpenter's calm, pretty voice was the most distinctive element of their music, settling in perfectly amidst the precise, lush arrangements provided by her brother Richard

Their musical achievements have also been overshadowed by the death of Karen Carpenter on February 4th, 1983 from anorexia, arguably the first high profile celebrity to die from this tragic illness.

I contend that Carpenters deserve to be considered amongst the greats of modern pop music. Richard, who has a Brian Wilson like sense of musical detail, which is largely unmatched, produced all of their material. Although the Carpenters are best known for their almost saccharine chart topper Close To You (Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?), it is their melancholy tone, combined with expertly refined production that sets them apart from other bands.

These qualities are displayed on the finest Greatest Hits collection I own. Clocking in at forty and a half minutes and 12 tracks The Singles: 1969-1974 concisely presents all the best moments from Carpenters who were so dominate in this era.


The magic of Carpenters can be heard in the very first bars of the album on We’ve Only Just Begun, which begins in an ironically hopeful tone given the bands tragic decline in its later years. The production and the composition make this song what it is, allowing Karen’s superb alto vocal tones to remain in the forefront of the mix whilst given the surrounding instrumentation sufficient room to breathe.

Another highlight is their first hit, a cover of the Beatles Ticket to Ride. Gone is the youthful innocence and bombast of the original, replaced with the sense of inherent sadness of this version. This is all emphasised by a truly beautiful piano and light percussion accompaniment, as well as Karen sorrowful vocals. This is certainly my favourite Beatles cover ever in a sea of worthy contenders.

However, it is in the middle section where the album shines and achieves a level of superiority. The tripartite force of hit singles Superstar, Rainy Days and Mondays, and the granddaddy of them all: Goodbye to Love makes an unbeatable and exquisite combination of musical prowess. Superstar is characterised with its terrifically sombre chorus, which contradicts the songs title and its brass refrain make a stunning opener to this three song set. Rainy Days and Mondays simultaneously manages to be depressing and empowering all at once with Karen’s vocal delivery unmatched in arguably her finest ever recorded performance. Then Rainy Days and Mondays immediately segues into Goodbye To Love, the most powerful anthem about heartbreak I’ve ever, ever encountered. This song is most definitely in my all time favourites. One look at the lyrics will tell you all you need to know.

I'll say goodbye to love

No one ever cared if I should live or die

Time and time again the chance for love has passed me by

And all I know of love is how to live without it

I just can't seem to find it

So I've made my mind up

I must live my life alone

And though it's not the easy way

I guess I've always know

I'd say goodbye to love

There are no tomorrows for this heart of mine

Surely time will lose these bitter memories

And I'll find that there is someone to believe in

And to live for something I could live for

All the years of useless search

Have finally reached an end

Loneliness and empty days will be my only friend

From this day love is forgotten

I'll go on as best I can

What lies in the future is a mystery to us all

No one can predict the wheel of fortune as it falls

There may come a time when I will see that I've been wrong

But for now this is my song

And it's goodbye to love

I'll say goodbye to love

All of this is topped off with an uncharacteristic thundering guitar solo at the songs conclusion to strengthen the song’s impact. It is a pure classic and it does not deserve to be neglected.

The album latter half continues the theme of pessimistic writing and stunning musical arrangement, with the strong material of Yesterday Once More, Sing and Hurting Each Other. Although each song does not count among my favourite tracks on the album they remain unquestionably strong.

Fittingly, the album closes with Close To You, the wonderfully sentimental song that everyone knows and loves and is played at countless weddings now and into the future. Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach it is a classic song, but I am disappointed that this is ultimately the pop cultural legacy of the Carpenters. Although it features all the hallmarks of Richard’s superb production style, (the horns, the harmonies and the perfectly controlled build up with wonderful overdubs at the songs conclusion) the song seems to be counterintuitive to the band’s legacy of intricate, intelligent yet mournful lyrics which are at its emotional core.

This legacy not only makes Carpenters one of the truly great bands, but perhaps the definitive band of their generation. They may not have been cool, and they may never be so. They may appeal to the geriatric set who settle for AM radio while drinking cups of tea and long for the Nixonian era (when he appeared to be honest and trustworthy but never actually was). Despite all of this though the Carpenters should be remembered as the masters of what they do best: emotionally honest pop music.


  1. Do you have a link to that song?

  2. Nice, I"ll have to listen to that song. My grandparents are like next door neighbors to Mary Chapin Carpenter. Pretty nuts, huh?