tremble clef

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Carpenters, "A Song For You" (1972)

There's a line in "A Song For You" I've never really understood. "If my words don't come together," its narrator says, "listen to the melody/Cause my love is in there hiding." In other words: the lyric may not be adequate at expressing what I'm thinking, and the real meaning is in the melody. It's a conditional sentence, so maybe it's not truly the case. Nevertheless, the song tells us to look to the melody for its secret, in case the lyric doesn't make its feelings clear.

But, puzzlingly, the lyric is perfectly clear. A track that has steadily become a classic since it was originally recorded in 1970 by Leon Russell, "A Song For You" is about the split between public success and private failure. The cost of the former is the latter. The narrator has had a rich career as an entertainer: "I've been so many places in my life and time/I've sung a lot of songs, I've made some bad rhymes/I've acted out my love in stages/With ten thousand people watching." In contrast, his private life has been more checkered, and he now thinks, in particular, of the person he has neglected: "I know your image of me is what I hope to be/I've treated you unkindly, but darlin' can't you see/There's no one more important to me." The time has thus come to make amends; perhaps the public success has faded, or become less important. He now sings directly to the lover he has neglected: "But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you."

The song therefore contains a tension that its singers have to try to negotiate. "A Song For You" is supposedly a song that's sung by the narrator in a moment when he is only with his loved one. But, of course, it is still a public song -- played on the radio, performed in concert (with, say, ten thousand people watching on American Idol). It hence has the potential to not mean what it says, to undercut its own message. It says it is a private song for one; its life is, must be, as a song for millions. To listen to it successfully, then, we have to be able to imagine that this mass product is meant only for us -- nay, only for me.

Since Leon Russell's original version, "A Song For You" has been covered by numerous artists, ranging from The Temptations to Joe Cocker to Simply Red. Probably the most heralded cover is Donny Hathaway's, and his and the original are usually considered the definitive versions. We would be hard-pressed to find many people who would consider The Carpenters' 1972 cover as the most revelatory. This of course is largely due to the fact that critics tend to privilege soul over soft rock. Even though the latter genre, and the Carpenters in particular, have been critically rehabilitated somewhat in recent years, it's still tough to pick Karen and Richard. They certainly don't make it easy; the sax solo in the middle of their version, so obviously a product of the 70s, adds a layer of schmaltz to the track it doesn't need.

And yet, Karen's reading of the song is amazingly subtle. If the contradiction of the song lies, as I have suggested above, in the way it has to simultaneously aspire to be a mass hit as well as a song that sounds tailored for one, then much depends on the way the singer sings it. Donny Hathaway fills his take with "soulful" vocal tricks, and they are indutiably effective in making us feel his anguished pleading. But at the same time, such vocal pyrotechnics also create the impression that the song is being performed for a big audience, and in many ways therefore undermines precisely the sense of intimacy that the song really needs. Karen, in contrast, sings it straight. She regularizes the melody (I only learned how to sing the song by listening to her version). More importantly, listen to the way she sings the pivotal line: "But we're alone now and I'm singing this song for you." You can barely hear the words "alone" and "now"; Karen's voice dips low, almost swallowing the words, and they sound muffled, indistinct, hidden. To hear the line on which the entire song turns, you have to listen, just as if she is singing merely to you. Perhaps it is in this sense that the meaning of the song is indeed less in the lyric, and more in the melody, "hiding," and Karen, in her infinite wisdom, comes closest to comprehending this.


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