Since her landmark Tapestry, Carole King has both oversimplified and overelaborated that masterful album's style until her music has become something more overtly but less effectively personal. The spontaneity and simple joyfulness of her earlier Brill Building music and the contemporary beauty of Tapestry eventually turned into the arid, stilted sound of her worst album Fantasy. On Wrap Around Joy she has taken her first faltering steps back to a more solid style.
On her first solo album, Writer, there was a delightful song called "Sweet Sweetheart." It was almost incompetently produced but at the time that was part of its charm. All of her subsequent solo albums have been produced by Lou Adler, but they have only adapted to each other perfectly on Tapestry — when her best contemporary songs were fitted to a perfectly appropriate, subdued and soothing background.
When blatant attempts to redo Tapestry (right down to similar album covers) failed, King and Adler made a stylistic leap to the jazz styles that dominate Fantasy. But while King's plain and unaffected voice was crying for a shot in the arm, the half-hearted efforts of the band were offering only a pat on the back.
Wrap Around Joy is better than Fantasy. But even on something as fine as "Jazzman," the arrangement misses the point. When she's singing her heart out, soaring along on the bold sax lines of Tom Scott, the big group is lending inadequate support. I sort of wish either that Jim Gordon were running the band or that Thom Bell had arranged the cut. Scott would have driven the song with greater (and much needed) force, while Bell would have executed the music with Adler's same measure of control, but with more style and definition to the sound. Either way, the results would have been better.
The album's other two high-points could also have benefited from more appropriate settings. "Wrap Around Joy" begins with Fifties vocal harmony but then wanders into a white R&B sound that doesn't do justice to the material. "You're Something New" is perhaps the album's most successful self-contained cut —although there is something intangible still missing. It has a hell of a chorus though, and would make a fine single.
Everyone on Wrap Around Joy sounds like they are hedging their bets. Having once sold 12 million copies of a single album (Tapestry) King and Adler are forced to live in its oppressive shadow. They sound like they are fighting to regain the big audience by being all things to all people.
And yet in considering King's general dilemma, it would be unfair to shortchange the merits of Wrap Around Joy. Although I've fastened onto its missed opportunities, I also find it an engaging work. Although repetitive, the melodies are good; although diffuse, the arrangements have presence; and while David Palmer's lyrics are uninspired, they are consistent with the mood.
Most importantly, Carole King still has the strength to hold so flawed an album together. Although it is far from great, she keeps it entertaining. The woman has soul — she's just been spreading it too thin.