With Grammy nominations coming up, I’ve decided to take a look back and review the albums that have won the Album of the Year award. Some of these albums have already been covered or will be covered in the Best Sellers so I won’t be touching those. I’ll be doing as much of these as I can of these until the 2022 Grammys Awards on January 31st.
Looking at Carole King’s Tapestry a half-century later, much of the backstory behind its massive success is the kind of thing that you can’t possibly replicate today. It’s an album by an almost 30-year-old woman who since her teenage years had been part of one of the most successful songwriting teams in pop music but hadn’t made much of an impact as an artist. After some life changes, she reluctantly begins her own recording career yet never tries to seize the spotlight the way many other artists in her situation do. Even when she was at her biggest, Carole King was never much of a public presence. She didn’t give many interviews or performances of her biggest album.
But that turned out not to matter. After a slow start, Tapestry became an undeniable sensation reaching the top of the album charts in June 1971 staying there for 15 straight weeks remaining on the charts for five years. The week the album hit #1 was also when its lead single, the double A-sided “It’s Too Late” b/w “I Feel The Earth Move,” hit #1 on the Hot 100 for five weeks. Not long after dropping out, another song from Tapestry hit the top with King’s friend James Taylor’s cover of “You’ve Got A Friend.” Tapestry would go on to sell about 25 million copies with Billboard naming it the #2 album of 1971 behind only Jesus Christ Superstar. At the 1972 Grammys, Carole King reigned supreme not only winning Album of the Year for Tapestry but Record of the Year for “It’s Too Late” and Song of the Year for “You’ve Got A Friend,” the first woman to win the Song award.
Just a year before, none of this success for Carole King would have been foreseen. King had tried her initial hand at a recording career long before the ‘70s when in 1962 amidst her hit songwriting streak with husband Gerry Goffin she made it to #22 with the single “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” But her subsequent singles didn’t do as well so King continued her job at writing some of the biggest hits of the ‘60s. It wasn’t until King was divorced from Goffin and moved out west to California’s Laurel Canyon in the late ‘60s that she began to find her own voice as an artist but she didn’t break through immediately.
She first joined a trio called The City with her future husband Charles Larkey that released one album that didn’t go anywhere before going out as a solo artist. Her first solo album Writer in 1970 had underperformed at #84 despite help from James Taylor, one of the rising singer-songwriters of the moment. With her next album Tapestry, King was able to tap more into the growing Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement that was defining much of popular music in the early ‘70s becoming a bigger star as an artist than she was writing for other artists. In perhaps a nod to her songwriting past, King records two versions of hit songs she co-wrote in the ‘60s on Tapestry which are “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
With the recent 50th anniversary, Tapestry has seen lots of retrospectives that continue to hold the album up to major acclaim. The weirdest thing about all this retrospective praise of Tapestry for me is that it seemed like Tapestry hadn’t left much of a lasting legacy. It almost felt like the Avatar of music, the type of blockbuster phenomenon that gets forgotten over time. I’ve always known about Tapestry and the big songs but I never heard many people discuss it outside of Carole King discussions or when older people talk about how popular it was back in the day. My biggest association with Carole King isn’t even with Tapestry but with a song she recorded for a Maurice Sendak adaptation and that’s all for kindergarten-related reasons. Unlike other acclaimed hits of the era, Tapestry and Carole King didn’t seem to have much resonance with younger generations but as Taylor Swift’s glowing speech at Carole King’s recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony indicates Carole King has clearly had an impact.
On a pure listening level, Tapestry is a nice album to listen to. It’s an album that doesn’t try to overburden you with sounds keeping things as stripped down as possible. All of this gives Tapestry a very comfortable and listenable feel. You could play Tapestry in your home and feel as if King and the band are playing just for you. King recorded the album with a group of session musicians along with notable contributions from James Taylor and Joni Mitchell in just a few weeks and they all gel well together. They sound very at home with one another in that professional way that you expect from session musicians.
Another element that works for Tapestry is Carole King herself. King isn’t anyone’s idea of an all-time great singer but it’s exactly a big part of the album’s appeal and why people have grabbed onto it for all these years. She doesn’t have that big loud voice that you expect from the great singers but instead opts for a more low-key and relatable delivery. It’s been said that when Carole King sings on Tapestry, it feels as if she’s singing directly to you and that she understands you.
When singing about relationships, instead of going all out to emphasize the drama and situations, King keeps things more small and contemplative. A big example of this is “It’s Too Late” which is a breakup song but King isn’t angry or upset about it. She quietly accepts that things just didn’t work out and that it’s time to move on. In pop music where breakups and relationships are often delivered with lots of musical melodrama and fiery rage, it’s a remarkably mature take on the situation. Even her takes on “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” give the songs a level of warmth that wasn’t there on the original hit versions from the Shirelles and Aretha Franklin respectively.
Even though there is a lot to like here, Tapestry overall isn’t something I love as most people have. I guess my main issue is that it’s too laid back, too mellow for my more exciting tastes. The Tapestry songs I tend to like are the more uptempo tracks like the opener “I Feel The Earth Move,” the closest we get to a rocking banger, along with “Where You Lead” and “Smackwater Jack.” (For my money, the real MVP on Tapestry is session guitarist Danny Kortchmar.) But perhaps my disconnect with the album has to do more with my experiences. It’s a very grown-up-sounding album for people who’ve been through things. Perhaps once I’m older, Tapestry might have more of a resonance with me. But for now, while I can certainly admire the craft and performances that went into Tapestry, I don’t connect much with it.
That said, I’m not exactly surprised Tapestry wound up sweeping the Grammys. It’s exactly the kind of critically popular yet musically middlebrow material that the Recording Academy loves to reward more often than not. That’s not to say anything bad about Tapestry but it’s what often happens at these shows. Looking at its competition that year, there’s not much to argue about. Personally, I’d have gone with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass or even Jesus Christ Superstar which would have made for a fun out-of-left-field win. But regardless, it’s hard to get all worked up about Tapestry winning Album of the Year considering the still-high critical consensus on it and the more baffling wins that the Grammys have given out that I’ll be getting into.