- by Warwick Stubbs Rating:10 Release Date:1971-02-10 Label: Ode/Epic
Consistently ranked as one of Popular music’s greatest albums, 1971’s Tapestry was also picked in 2004 to be added to the American National Recording Registry along with (obvious) recordings by Otis Redding, The Beatles, Johhny Cash and Marvin Gaye, among other music and film recordings to be preserved in the Library of Congress.
Not bad, one might say, for a songwriter who began their career much like many other songwriters and musicians as an employee of the Brill Building song-factory in the late 50s, churning out ideas in a pressure cooker of competitiveness. Her first solo album Writer appeared in 1970 but made little impression, despite containing two songs that were previously recorded by Dusty Springfield; second album Tapestry hit the charts and didn’t leave the number 1 spot for another 15 weeks, and wasn’t broken for the number of weeks held by a female artist until Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard Soundtrack Album 20 years later. It is an astonishing feat for any artist when one thinks about how quickly artists appear and fade, whether it be the 60s churning out hit after hit, or the post-millennial 10s YouTube and digital singles coming and going. What’s also personally surprising, is that for someone like myself, bred on rock music and raised during the 90s, is that what is basically an acoustic pop album, never featured in my list of great albums as I was aware of them: Dark Side of the Moon, Thriller, Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, Led Zeppelin IV, Rumours… etc. But here is one of the great albums of our time that in its simplicity of recording – drums, bass, piano, vocals – has influenced and inspired so much of that 90s popular music that I grew up with and the return to naturalness away from the synthesized 80s.
For people who grew up with this album, these songs are no doubt a trip down memory lane, for those of us who only heard the songs in passing, the album is a revelation. To suddenly discover Aretha Franklin’s original recording of ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin. In fact, Carole King, with the help of lyricist Goffin, supplied a number of hits for the revolutionary sixties including ‘The Loco-motion’ for Little Eva, ‘I’m Into Something Good’ for Herman’s Hermits, ‘Goin’ Back’ for Dusty Springfield, and along with the Aretha Franklin hit one of her other most famous songs ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’ in an up-tempo version by The Shirelles.
Tapestry was an attempt to reclaim her own voice as an artist, not just as a songwriter supplying songs for other people. And King reclaims her voice with astonishing assurance. From ‘So Far Away’ to ‘Way Yonder Over’ and ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, King’s vocals are swooning but honest, and never forced in their plaintive cries. Completely unaffected by performance heroics and an over-reliance on studio production, King’s vocals set the stage for female singer-songwriters henceforward.
Song lyrics range from love, friendships, and the perceptions of beauty through perceptions of the self. This latter is central to rooting the album as a whole, where a song like ‘Smackwater Jack’ – a tale about an outlaw meeting with Big Jim, a chief – would feel completely out of place on similar albums, musically the album keeps King’s vocals and pianos central with drums and bass providing a basic backing, and so the tapestry that is woven is one of ease and sensitivity, while still allowing for upbeat tempos to get feet tapping.
One of the first things that strike the listener when listening to this all-time classic from the early seventies, is the ordering of songs goes from upbeat to downbeat, to upbeat to downbeat, continuously from start to finish. Where modern albums tend to structure the flow of songs with two or three upbeat before bringing the listener down, and then building them back up, Tapestry simply exchanges one for the other.
Even with its fair share of slower tempos being more prominent, the album never feels dull, it never feels like it slackens the pace. It’s an exceptional example of basic recording to enhance the artist and musicians and allowing their talents to shine through rather than studio manipulation. As an album that exits the 60s with optimism, it brings in the 70s with naturalism, a return to emotional nurturing and personal searching.