If you were a child of the ’70s you probably have a soft spot for the squeaky-clean easy-listening sounds of Karen and Richard Carpenter. The all-American duo won three Grammy awards and scored 12 top ten hits including their bubbly feel-good anthem “On Top of the World,” the melancholy classic “Rainy Days and Mondays,” and the number one wedding song of the ’70s “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Yet for most people, listening to the Carpenters falls under the heading of “guilty pleasure.” Even the 1994 alternative rock tribute, If I Was a Carpenter, seemed to be done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. In my perfect pop-world, the recently released compilation Carpenters: Singles 1969-1981, which puts all 12 of the duo’s top ten hits together for the first time, would lift them forever from the “guilty pleasure” ghetto. No longer would they get lumped alongside such dubious ’70s musicians as The Captain and Tennille or Tony Orlando and Dawn .
Carpenters: Singles 1969-1981 is an update on their first collection of singles, Carpenters: Singles 1969-1973, which was never intended as a greatest hits package, but since the untimely death of Karen Carpenter in 1983 it has served as one. Included on Carpenters: Singles 1969-1981 is their 1975 #1 cover of “Please Mr. Postman,” as well as “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” “Only Yesterday,” and their final top 20 hit, 1981’s “Touch Me When I’m Dancing.”
What made the Carpenters music so special, and raises it above the earlier mentioned ’70s duos was that beneath the smiling sheen of the Carpenters squeaky clean image, their toothy grins and matching sweaters, Karen Carpenter was battling pain and loneliness that her voice couldn’t hide. What’s obvious in listening to Carpenters: Singles: 1969-1981 as a collected works is the weight of depression and sadness that inhabits their music. Even the upbeat “On Top of the World” pulsates with a melancholy that is both unnerving and incongruous with the songs buoyant lyrics. In the wedding anthem “We’ve Only Just Begun” Karen’s plaintive vocals sound like she’s singing from the point of view of a new bride that knows the rosy family life promised to her by television and the media is a lie. It could almost be argued that the song’s eerie sadness foreshadows America’s late ’70s disillusionment with family and the exploding divorce rate. OK, so maybe that’s a stretch, but work with me.
On “Rainy Days and Mondays,” Karen Carpenter sings “What I’ve got they used to call the blues,” and that, in a nutshell is the key to the Carpenters’ greatness. They might be remembered as a the light-muzak favorites of a the “me generation,” but underneath the surface of those bubble-gum pop songs that made them famous, there is Karen Carpenter, singing the blues.