What makes this Carole King classic such a transcendent artifact in the world of popular music?
What makes Carole King’s Tapestry—which has just turned 50—such a transcendent artifact in the world of popular music? One that even teens respond to today?
To attain such immortality, it must be an album that permanently changes perceptions of an artist or a genre or both must work on a number of levels. Musically, the melodies must be enchanting and lasting. The lyrics and the messages–what the artist is trying to say—must both equal (or surpass?) the music. A truly great album rises above the other great art of its time and yet is easy to enjoy, eminently likable and full of, for lack of a better word, hits.
Tapestry nailed the commercial acceptance part of the equation from the start, not only by becoming an all-time sales champ, but holding down the number one slot on the Billboard Top 200 album chart for 15 weeks to boot. It has been on and off the same chart for 40 years(!) It eventually won King four Grammy Awards for Album of the Year, Song of the Year (“You’ve Got a Friend”), Record of the Year (“It’s Too Late”) and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and has sold over 25 million copies and counting. A new 50th anniversary reissue LP from Sony/Legacy and a new book in the 33 1/3rd series should significantly add to that total. In 1995, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified the album 10x multi-platinum for more than 10 million copies shipped in the United States. It was the first album by a female artist to reach that milestone.
For many, King’s Tapestry is first and foremost a feminist manifesto of sorts. Newly divorced, a New Yorker living in Laurel Canyon, adrift in a male-dominated music business, she was mostly known as the songwriting partner of her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin. The songs on Tapestry are intimate and yet universal, revealing a woman strong enough to be on her own—on the opposite coast from where she grew up and had success—and yet also passionate, open to love with much to left to give. The tune “Where You Lead,” which centers on following her man, was always the fly in the ointment, seeming to hark back to King’s earlier more conventional songwriting and has remained a servile or at least antiquated note on an album that’s otherwise full of female empowerment anthems.
Another way to look at Tapestry and another reason why it remains so important is that it marks King’s emergence from songwriter to world class singer, piano player and frontperson—an incredibly difficult step few have ever mastered with just one album. Although she’d tried to record while still with Goffin, and had released her first album, 1970’s Writer after her move to California in 1968, Tapestry showed what an incredibly powerful performer she was, the equal in every way of James Taylor whose presence on the album is a part of Tapestry lore.
For those who choose to looker even deeper, it’s always fascinating how much of their inner selves an artist reveals in their artifice. On Tapestry which opens with the “Hot and cold all over” passions of “ I Feel The Earth Move,” followed by the mournful, bereft, “So Far Away,” (with that wonderful bass part by her future husband, Charles Larkey), King shows herself to be torn between confidence and cutting her own path in life in “Tapestry” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the worry and grief that comes with the need of love as in her remake of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Out of that combustible mix however comes a silhouette of strength and resolution. It may be left for the album’s two oddball tracks to render the ultimate judgement on the King that emerges from Tapestry. The simple, gorgeous, “Home Again” is a plea for peace, security and being “home again and feeling right.” And then there’s “Smackwater Jack,” the album’s one concession to pop song silliness, the only tune not about King…or is it? Very reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s similar murder ballad, “Rocky Raccoon,” from the White album, this tune of a man pushed to the edge who “shot down the congregation,” besides being an entertaining tale set to a jaunty melody, may play into the album’s theme of King striking out on her own, breaking free of “Goffin/King” and finding her voice.
As for this album’s incredible melodies and playing, much credit must be given to producer Lou Adler who set the scene and marshalled the forces and the base band of the aforementioned Larkey on bass, drummers Russ Kunkel and Joel O’Brien, and Danny Kortchmar on guitar. The consequential guest list includes flute and sax player Curtis Amy, singer Merry Clayton and James Taylor on rhythm guitar.
For listeners in 1971 and today, the combination of intimate lyrics and enchanting music, the everlasting resonance inherent on a record where it’s still possible to hear something different with each spin, is the definition of art whose relevance never fades. Happy 50th Tapestry!