As straightforward a singer as she is a lyricist and composer, Carole King projects one of the most integrated personalities in pop. Her musical and intellectual scope is narrow, but her seven albums, with the exception of Fantasy (an overly self-conscious concept work), stand as one of the most consistently listenable collections of the rock era. King’s melodies are seldom sophisticated but they’re almost always catchy, and her lyrics embrace the pop cliché with economy, honesty and good will, turning it into a metaphor for shared experience.
Since the phenomenal success of Tapestry (still on the charts after five years and moving up again), King’s skeletal piano and vocal approach has been enriched in various ways, almost always at the expense of freshness. A triumphant return to the basics makes Thoroughbred King’s finest album since Tapestry, and though none of the ten new tunes carry quite the melodic clout of “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Up on the Roof” or “A Natural Woman,” taken together they form one of the most emotionally charged pop albums in quite some time. King’s new songs are her typical slow-to medium-tempo ballads. They restate the dominant theme of all her work —the relation between romantic love and friendship —though she has never before worked with it so directly.
The emotional extremes of the earlier songs are gone, replaced by a new maturity and vibrancy. Four of the new songs reunite her with Gerry Goffin, her most reliable collaborator: their “We All Have to Be Alone” evokes a universal experience in affectingly plain language. And “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine” and “Daughter of Light” express adult sentiments remarkably untinged by anxiety and filled with hope.
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For me, “So Many Ways” most intensely distills the album. Recorded with just voice and piano (King’s masterful pseudoclassical arrangement has a strong devotional fervor), the song celebrates a romantic partnership in broad, urgent strokes. King sings with a verve and confidence she has seldom exhibited before, and the fact that a flat note in her upper register is allowed to stand somehow makes the performance all the more gripping. It is no small gift that King can write and sing basic pop lyrics in a way that makes them feel like much more:
We have so much in common
Although we come from places worlds apart
When you reach out and touch my hand
Without a word you say I love you
You are in my heart
Lou Adler’s outstandingly spare production is propelled by King’s excellent keyboard work and the ideal bass-drum combo of Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel. David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor contribute beautiful background singing to Goffin and King’s transcendental love song, “High Out of Time” and again on King’s “I’d Like to Know You Better.” Taylor duets movingly with King on “There’s a Space between Us,” another peak moment, which appears to use est vocabulary to express deep friendship almost as compellingly as “You’ve Got a Friend.”
The joy of rediscovering Carole King is not unlike the joy of first discovering popular music and reveling in its guileless humaneness and democratic power. When Carole King sings, “Only love is real/Everything else illusion” (the most cogent statement of her personal and artistic philosophy), I believe her.