The cover of Carly Simon's enjoyable new album is an indication of its best songs, which celebrate the body at play. Playing Possum represents a breakthrough of sorts for Simon. Earlier albums, through Hotcakes, depicted adolescent and postadolescent growing pains, family relationships and especially an aching romantic ardor. Simon's new, bolder stance was probably inevitable — it's certainly welcome — since her previous four albums have defined a slow but steady movement away from the "sensitive singer/songwriter" role toward that of "rock" songstress. The first turning point was Simon's association with producer Richard Perry, who on No Secrets provided the percussive drive necessary to effect the change, while Simon provided the crucial song, "You're So Vain," a magnificently vulgar pop masterpiece. On Hotcakes Simon ventured further into rock with her successful revival of "Mockingbird," which showed her ability to adopt a more flexible approach to vocal phrasing.
With Playing Possum, Simon has largely abandoned plaintive balladeering for a blunt style that means to be aggressively sexy. Aggressive it is — and characteristically ingratiating — but not particularly sexy except on one song, "Attitude Dancing." Easily the most exciting Carly Simon cut since "You're So Vain," "Attitude Dancing" boasts nifty nonsense lyrics by Jacob Brackman and one of Richard Perry's tour de force productions: strutting horns, razorsharp string lines, perfect backup vocals by various luminaries and Jim Gordon's impeccable, essential drumming. Simon's vocal is genuinely sassy; she even lets herself growl a bit.
While "Attitude Dancing" stands as the album's showstopper, six other original songs comprise the core of Playing Possum's thematic material. In "After the Storm," which has a remarkably strong, chromatic melody and lavish production, Simon promotes the domestic squabble as a tool for sexual stimulation: "And doesn't anger turn you on." "Love out in the Street" explores voyeuristic fantasy, suggesting, if not a mass orgy, at least greater sexual relaxation. In a softer style, "Look Me in the Eyes" extols the ecstasy of eye contact during sex. "Waterfall" likens lust to drowning in a waterfall. And "Are You Ticklish," an old-fashioned waltz, describes a childlike playfulness that can precede sex. The album's "heaviest" erotic song, "Slave," cowritten with Jacob Brackman, describes very straightforwardly what it's like to be madly in love. That "Slave" may be taken by some as an antifeminist statement seems to me beside the point, despite one controversial stanza:
However much I tell myself
That I'm strong and free and brave
I'm just another woman
Raised to be a slave
In fact the song would have even more validity if "another woman" were "another person," since the capability for obsessive, slavish passion is universal.
Playing Possum's title cut ends the album on a sociological rather than erotic note. The song traces the history of the generation just turned 30, suggesting that its political, spiritual and utopian ideals have dissipated into a desire for the bourgeois "easy life." Simon questions whether or not "there might be something more." Like many of Simon's songs, "Playing Possum" sounds more like a well-crafted writing exercise than a fully imagined reminiscence. A somewhat similar aesthetic distance characterizes Simon's "body" songs as well as her performances of them. In comparison to Barry White's soft-core porn, for instance, they're positively genteel. As for performance, though Simon sounds more open and down to earth than before, in order to have matched the sensuality of her lyrics with an equivalent vocal style she would have had to throw restraint to the wind and unlearn her perfect elocution. Perhaps an R & B producer would be more helpful.
Of course, for commercial purposes, Carly Simon and Richard Perry are an ideal match. Cuts like "You're So Vain" and "Attitude Dancing" represent paragons of commercial craft that command attention like wonderful new toys. It's a shame that each Carly Simon album contains only one such cut and even more of a shame that below their surfaces there is no soul, nothing to evoke the subliterate, primal responses that the greatest rock music can make happen. I suggest that Carly Simon knows "there might be something more" — it's just beginning to creep into some of her lyrics and around the edges of her voice — and is aware of the terrible risks involved in trying to find it. Playing Possum is at least good enough for a start.