Ross Palmer on “Let Me Be the One” by the Carpenters

Songs of pain: Karen Carpenter

Derided by rock fans in their era, the Carpenters have taken the long way round to critical credibility and are now cool with the critics and the kids (or, at least, those with catholic tastes). While they deserve any praise that comes their way, this reappraisal has had a tendency to put – and perhaps this is inevitable after her heartbreakingly early death from anorexia-related heart failure – heavy emphasis on the melancholy and perceived emotional distress in Karen Carpenter’s vocals. Tragedy, after all, is a prism through which rock fans are used to relating to their musical icons.

One of the unarguably great singers in popular music, 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”.

It would be remiss not mention Richard Carpenter’s contribution to all this. Let me just say, then, that he’s one of the finest 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 Karen’s voice and the Carpenters’ sound, of which he was the architect.

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