Carly Simon: Spy

It may have seemed surprising, a few years back, for Carly Simon to record a sensual ode to James Bond ("Nobody Does It Better"), but Spy finally makes the connection clear. If Simon's an "international spy in the house of love" (as per the LP's Anaïs Nin epigraph), it's not in the shadowy, self-effacing mode of John Le Carré's George Smiley. Instead, she embraces well-bred, high-toned visibility and an 007-like panache. Each new album sends her out into the war of the sexes fully equipped with sure-fire sidemen and the latest in bulletproof production that's as flashy and diverting as any of Q's space-age gadgetry.

Like Bond, Simon's become a pop icon, manipulating a modish sexpot image that grows ever more unwieldy and — as the success formula threatens to wear thin — begins to take on the characteristics of a crutch. All too often on Spy, the small, significant personal questions that the songwriter is capable of asking are obscured by a lascivious "Does she or doesn't she?" Even the Rolling Stones-style backup vocals on the catchy "Pure Sin" can't rescue its central oxymoron from redium, because the extremes simply aren't that interesting. Though Simon's not the artistic wallflower she presents in "Memorial Day" (a maundering, jazzy opus with a Zabriskie Point backdrop), she's no rakish hot mama either. Indeed, the dreary mock twang of "Coming to Get You" reminds me of academicians who write in dialect.

All of this cartoons-for-adults posturing doesn't disguise the fact that Simon gives away very little of herself on Spy. She's always been of two minds about exposure: a confessional singer with patrician reticence. Her best songs, from "No Secrets" to "In Times When My Head" (and the new record's gem, "We're So Close"), have transmuted and exploited this conflict, simultaneously serving as a rueful commentary on her own reserve while homing in on the role of honesty in love. Here, Simon's rough, bold voice — powerful and affecting as ever — seizes center stage with husky promise and, like a dormitory storyteller after lights out, threatens revelations. But even discounting the mediating layers of studio polish, she winds up sounding strangely distanced from her material.

Simon's quite aware of her potential as gossip fodder — remember "You're So Vain"? — but she's forfeiting emotional intensity now by offering hints, rather than insights, about her marriage. Perhaps that's why lines such as "There's a husky voice/That speaks to me in the dark/And on the phone from studios/And west-side bars" have an air of calculated self-exposure that makes Carly Simon, in her trench coat, seem more like a flasher than a spy.