Carole King: Rhymes & Reasons

"It's a gray, gray gloomy day/A strange and moody blues day/Gotta get through, gotta get through another day." So begins one of the best and most representative songs on Carole King's troubling new album — troubling because its spirit is uncharacteristically depressed and uncertain. In the past, Carole has reached out to us, offering the strength of her musical confidence and humanistic faith. On Rhymes and Reasons, the tables are reversed, and the burden is ours to bear with her. This message is most explicitly stated in Carole's song, "I Think I Can Hear You," which is directed straight at her audience: "What must I do/How can I serve you/Is it true what I do is the way to be near you/I'm listening, though sometimes I can't hear you." Though the song, a slow imploring ballad, ends on a note of tentative optimism — "I'm listening, and I think I can hear you" — its overall mood is not happy, and since Carole has the gift of consistently being able to communicate at a gut emotional level, it is somewhat upsetting to hear her express so nakedly a dependent relationship to an unseen audience. That Carole King is able to carry it off, and even to uplift us with her honesty, is part of her greatness, for it is finally the extramusical dimension of her personality that makes her records so compelling.

Having listened to it many times, I think that Rhymes and Reasons is a major work, a record that you have to live with for awhile, and refer to often, in order to assimilate its full impact. Though I find it musically less exciting than most of Tapestry and some of Writer and Music, I think that structurally it is Carole's most unified, personal album. The theme, implied by the title, is homespun philosophical "Some say that time brings a better understanding/Of the rhyme and reason to it all" and the lyrics are meant to be taken as seriously as the music. This will present a problem for those who will find the words too simplistic, as well as for those who will miss the transcendent musical vitality present in varying degrees on her three previous albums, and here considerably attenuated. For the first time, there are no reprises of her great hits from the 60s. Of the album's 12 songs, all of them new, six are collaborations (four by King-Stern, one by King-Goffin, and one by King-Larkey); the rest are by Carole alone.

The musical virtues of Rhymes and Reasons are subtle. The importance of Carole's longstanding relationship to black music has diminished. There are no tunes with both the tightness and memorability of "You've Got a Friend" and "It's Too Late," not to mention the King-Goffin songs of earlier days. Since the lyric content of Rhymes and Reasons is openly philosophical, the tunes have a roughly equivalent quality they debate more than they proclaim. Two of the three best songs — "Come Down Easy" and "Gotta Get Through Another Day" have the same toughness and narrative facility as "Sweet Seasons" from the Music album, though I don't think they're quite as strong melodically. Except for the beautiful King-Larkey ballad, "The First Day in August," there is no expansion of harmonic vocabulary beyond Carole's previous albums. The some holds for the arrangements, which are still keyboard dominated and deceptively casual. "The First Day in August," however, has the best string arrangement of any Carole King record so far. A wistful love song organized around an unresolved A-minor chord, its arrangement, interplaying piano and strings, has just the right amount of intensity to enhance the song without dragging it down or making Carole's naturalistic vocal seem constrained or out of place. The lyric is splendid: "On the first day in August/I want to wake up by your side/After sleeping with you on the last night in July/In the morning/We'll catch the sun rising/And we'll chase it from the mountains to the bottom of the sea."

"August" and "Been to Canaan" are the album's two most optimistic songs, though they both look out from an unstable present toward some cherished dream, the first romantic, the second historical with religious connotations: "Been so long. I'm living till then/Cause I've been to Canaan and I won't rest until I go back again." What ultimately makes Rhymes and Reasons so moving is Carole's singing, which grows more assured with each record. The extraordinary warmth of her style, with its total lack of affectation, transforms materials that might otherwise seem banal-commonplace emotional vicissitudes giving them a truth that has the power to heal.