It may seem I bring up Robert Christgau a lot on this blog. There’s a good reason. Christgau is one of the first generation of rock ‘n’ roll writers, and his archive of reviews is digitised and freely available. Now, it’s dangerous to assume that his take on any given piece of work is representative of the mainstream critical opinion of the era – he’s idiosyncratic, sometimes ornery, frequently just plain wrongheaded, just like any critic – but if you want an authentic, from-its-time reaction to pretty much any record you can think of, Christgau’s archive is the place to go. So let’s look at his take on the Carpenters’ 1973 singles collection, the only record of theirs he seems to have reviewed:
The combination of Karen Carpenter’s ductile, dispassionate contralto and Richard Carpenter’s meticulous studio technique is admittedly more musical than the clatter of voices and silverware in a cafeteria, but it’s just as impervious to criticism. That is, the duo’s success is essentially statistical: I’ll tell you that I very much like We’ve Only Just Begun and detest Sing, but those aren’t so much aesthetic judgments as points on a graph.
Richard and Karen did, from the 1990s onwards, begin to win the respect they’d always deserved, and like the Bee Gees, or ABBA, they now have critical credibility in spades, with their reputations as respectively arranger and singer bulletproof. I can’t imagine anyone in 2016 willing to stand up in public and say they find Karen Carpenter’s singing dispassionate. Time has rendered the disapproval of writers like Christgau a mere footnote.
While the Carpenters deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable, after her still shocking early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy in Karen’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.
Karen certainly had a wistful quality to her alto and she does sound at home on songs such as Goodbye to Love and Rainy Days and Mondays. But there is a goofy, corny playfulness to many of the Carpenters’ records (I’m thinking of such songs as There’s a Kind of Hush, Top of the World and Close to You) – to downplay this and to see Karen purely as a tragic figure is to do her a disservice as an interpretive singer and fundamentally to misunderstand the band’s music.
Let Me Be the One comes from a rich seam of Carpenters songs that contain elements from both poles of their music, songs that mingle the light and shade, the major and minor, to create something idiosyncratically bittersweet, something sui generis. You find it in Superstar, This Masquerade, Yesterday Once More, I Need to Be in Love, in their version of Ticket to Ride, in the song in question and most perfectly in the first-dance classic We’ve Only Just Begun.
They can be lighter (as on, say, throwaway covers of Please Mr Postman and Jambalaya), or darker (most obviously on Goodbye to Love), but it’s on these songs that they seem to me most essentially themselves, and when Karen Carpenter is at her best vocally. There was always some hope in her delivery of even the saddest material.
It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the most inventive arrangers ever to set foot in a recording studio, a fine pianist, a consistently strong songwriter and, crucially, an astute finder of songs that suited both Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the sole architect.
It might have helped if they’d been marketed more like this and less like this: