In the opening and title cut of Carole King’s first, and I hope last, “conceptual” album, the format is made crystal clear: “I may step outside myself/And speak as if I were someone else/ … In fantasy I can be black or white/A woman or a man.” Subsequently we are treated alternately to a series of dramatic monologues, in some of which Carole King appears as herself, voicing personal hope and aspiration, but the majority featuring her as someone else, black, Latin American or otherwise, voicing the same sentiments. The whole adds up to a formalized song cycle in which the Carole King Institution issues its summary social and philosophical expression to date — one that eschews melody for orchestration and lyrical spontaneity for generalities — the overall impact being the equivalent of an early Sixties soap opera.
In five cuts, Carole King “fantasizes” an ethnic persona, for which she has single-handedly provided the most tepid, tokenistic “soul” backgrounds imaginable. “You’ve Been Around Too Long” expresses an early civil rights mentality: “… you’ve been around too long/Not to realize what’s going on inside/I’m just like you/I’m doing the best that I can do to make my stride.” “Directions” could just as easily be a bow to feminism as to black consciousness, its message being a catchall for malcontents: “Oooh, what does it get you/Stealing somebody else’s pride/How much longer must I cry.” “Haywood,” the most detailed dramatic monologue of the album, is a well-meaning warning to a junkie friend: “Haywood, you been on the street again, I know, I know/Haywood, hangin’ out with your so-called friends/What makes you think that you’ll be the one to put it down….” “A Quiet Place to Live” envisages a ghetto-dweller’s dream as the following: “All I want is a quiet place to live/Where I can enjoy the fruits of my labor/Read the paper/And not have to cry out loud.” Then there is “Corazon,” an unintentional travesty of Latin music.
In between these “someone else” monologues, Carole King speaks in her Institutional role as humanitarian empathist: “Everyone comes from one father one mother/So why do we complicate our lives so much/By being at war with each other” (“Being at War with Each Other”). In “That’s How Things Go Down,” she is a pregnant and potentially unwed mother and in “Weekdays” the mythical everyday housewife: “Heaven knows I can always watch the daytime shows/And wonder which story’s mine.” “Welfare Symphony” should be called “Welfare Sympathy,” because that’s all it is, sympathy without guts: “She often cried as they left her without a shred of pride.” The all-conclusive summary cut has the embarrassingly preachy title, “Believe In Humanity.” In it, Carole King tells us: “Maybe I’m living/With my head in the sand/I just want to see people giving/I want to believe in my fellow man.”
Fine sentiments, but so what? Up through Rhymes And Reasons, Carole King wrote songs that, in their specificity of detail, personal revelation, and narrative force, embodied an extraordinary populist feeling and musical vitality. In Fantasy, with its run-on editing and calculated schematization, these qualities are transmuted into humanitarian rhetoric that affects deliverance without delivering. Carole King made it precisely because she didn’t preach, didn’t try to turn a phrase, wasn’t a would-be producer of “art.” Fantasy, though very listenable as background music, affects the resurrection as “art” of the essentially innocent approach to songwriting that made her what she is today, and it doesn’t work.
Only one song, “You Light Up My Life,” shows the luminescent, intimate King sensibility that made Tapestry, Music and Rhymes And Reasons so emotionally satisfying. The greatness of Carole King’s songwriting career has been the self-contained, simple perfection of her individual songs, and their utter lack of pretentiousness. Here, the priorities are reversed. Orchestration that resembles, but that is vastly inferior to, Burt Bacharach’s productions for Dionne Warwicke is substituted for melody. Easy homilies replace lyric necessity. In “Fantasy End,” the album’s coda, Carole King announces: “Now that I’ve expressed my soul/I’ll step back into my real-life role.” What, in heaven’s name, should be the difference between Carole King’s “soul” and her “real-life role”? Aren’t they inevitably one-and-the-same? Apparently, Carole King has forgotten that they are, and no amount of well-meaning altruism can make up the difference.