It’s interesting to look at how certain singers kind of have a theme to their songs. This seems particularly true of female singers, for some reason. Patsy Cline was always having her heart broken. Joni Mitchell’s always trying to figure out love. Dolly Parton usually has a tragic tale to tell. Roberta Flack’s a sad romantic. Pat Benatar does not want to be fucked with. Donna Fargo was super-happy.
And then there’s Karen Carpenter. Karen, Karen, Karen. We all know the sad story of her premature death from heart failure due to anorexia nervosa at the age of 32, but has anyone ever noticed how her hit songs trace a tragic arc through love, depression, delusion, and, ultimately, insanity? I kid you not.
It all starts harmlessly enough with a cover version of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” though Karen’s drastic slowing down of the song foreshadows the depression to come. Or it might have had anyone paid attention; the song didn’t crack the top 40. The Carpenters hit the big time in summer 1970 with the #1 smash Herb Alpert encouraged them to record, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” a charming Burt Bacharach/Hal David ditty about infatuation…but not obsession, so no real cause for alarm.
The Carpenters’ second huge hit, “We’ve Only Just Begun,” which Richard Carpenter apparently fell in love with after hearing it on a television commercial for Crocker Bank, showcases Karen at her most optimistic in a serious love song. Was there a single wedding in the early 1970s where this song was not played by a bell-bottomed cover band? It was followed by “For All We Know,” which, although a bit more cautious — our love may grow for all we know — also takes an optimistic view of love.
Then something happened. “Rainy Days and Mondays” might not have stood out as anything more than an isolated hit about sadness were it not the first in a whole string of serious downers — “Superstar,” “Hurting Each Other,” and “Goodbye to Love” among them — signaling love gone wrong and depression: classic Carpenters.
Then things got weird and the songs got bad. It’s almost as if Karen were put on medication but couldn’t get the recipe quite right (metaphorically…I think). Their three hits from 1973 are all ostensibly happy, but in very odd ways: “Sing,” a song from Sesame Street that I don’t even know what else to say about, was followed by “Yesterday Once More,” a pretty somber flashback to happier times; then came “Top of the World,” which comes across not as the happy-go-lucky love song it’s intended to be so much as delusional. It’s kind of refreshing to have the old Karen back when she “goes off her meds” in 1974’s “I Won’t Last a Day without You.”
(It’s also interesting that those last two songs were dredged from their 1972 album, A Song for You. The Carpenters went two full years [May 1973 to June 1975] without releasing an album with new material on it, something unheard of for a group riding as high on the singles charts as these two. Something was definitely up.)
A remake of the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” has her in serious denial (and the Disneyland video makes it even more disturbing. This was also around the time Richard’s quaalude addiction really kicked in). With “Only Yesterday,” it looks as though Karen’s finally facing her demons and stabilizing — baby, baby, feels like maybe things will be all right — but that was not to last: “Solitaire” came next. The title tells you all you need to know. I can’t think of a more depressing 70s hit, can you? Even the album cover from the LP that spawned those hits, Horizon (1975), is sad.
The Carpenters had a couple more small hits before their slide into pop-music psychosis culminated in 1977’s insane (though brilliant) “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” If you’ve not heard this, the “Recognized Anthem of World Contact Day,” you simply must. It’s originally by Klaatu, a Canadian band many crazy people thought were the Beatles in disguise (as I’ve pointed out before).
Of course, I have no idea what Karen Carpenter’s true mental state was at any point in this eight-year history. Maybe she really was “on top of the world” when she recorded that song…but I kind of doubt it. As with a lot of tragic figures in the music business, part of her appeal was the seeming authenticity of the emotion she expressed in the best of her songs.
The brilliant Carpenters songs are the sad, maudlin ones. Some of their happier songs are good, too; but the perky ones aren’t, and not just because I don’t like perky songs (though it’s true most are pretty bad, I love “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” for instance). No, it’s because I don’t believe them.