40/40, by the Carpenters
Richard Carpenter, for the 40th anniversary of his brother/sister duo, made a 2 cd 40-track retrospective as a way of providing another way to provide the beloved music of the group to fans in a way that would demonstrate the legacy of their songs over the course of time. If you, like me, are fond of examining the origins of Soccermomlandia, this collection is a very important one as it helps to provide a sense of context to how and why Soccermomlandia was formed and how it relates to some of the genres nearby and continues to provide templates for how artists are to appeal to a large and (mostly) female audience. Interestingly enough, both members of the Carpenters had a lot to do with that. Karen Carpenter’s emotive singing provide the emotional resonance that has been immensely appealing to the group’s intended audience and Richard’s production and A&R work has demonstrated the sort of material that works best to the Adult Contemporary market, which has combined to provide a great deal of insight that later groups, with far less ambition than the Carpenters, have used for their own profit as the genre continues going strong to this day.
What domain did the Carpenters establish for Soccermomlandia as shown in this retrospective. It is no surprise that a vast majority of these songs are clearly in Adult Contemporary, frequently in songs that were written by others and performed by professional studio musicians. That said, the Carpenters deserve a great deal of credit for ambition and for range in their material that includes disco instrumentation (“Love Is Surrender”), has at least an implicit opening for Christian AC (“Top Of The World” with its references to creation), contains some serious experimental artpop (“Calling All Occupants Of Interplanetary Craft”), includes some genuine country (like “Sweet Sweet Smile” and the instrumentation to “These Good Old Dreams”), and even some rock or rock-adjacent songs (like “Only Yesterday” and “Goodbye To Love”). If you don’t rock harder than the Carpenters, you don’t deserve to consider yourself a rock band, and on a few songs at least, the Carpenters rocked pretty hard. The wide range of the music of the Carpenters suggests at least a few of the ways that they were able to set a territory for other artists to appreciate, which even included covers of rock (“Reason To Believe” and “Ticket To Ride”) and R&B (“Please Mr. Postman) songs. There are even some songs here that are children’s music (“Bless The Beasts And Children” and “Sing”) for the children of Soccermomlandia.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Carpenters’ discography is the way that it shows a great deal of tonal inconsistency that mirrors the problems of Soccermomlandia given the breakdown of marriage and the family that marked the establishment of Adult Contemporary as a genre as a replacement for the somewhat complacent Easy Listening music that had existed before. These songs veer from songs that show the dependency and vulnerability and longing of soccer moms (“I Need To Be In Love,” “Superstar,” “I Believe You,” and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing,” later covered by Alabama for the country charts) to songs that demonstrate pessimism about love and relationships (“All You Get From Love Is A Love Song,” “Goodbye To Love,” “Your Baby Doesn’t Love You Anymore,” “Where Do I Go From Here?”). At times the tension between the meaning of the song and the composition of the band is uncomfortable, as in “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The result is music that shows the longing for something that is lasting but the inability to find it because of a critical lack of trust and lack of firm moral basis for the romantic love that serves as the inspiration for so many of these songs.
It is striking, though, that while a great many of these songs are about romantic love, that the Carpenters show an interest in areas beyond this. Karen Carpenter shows a great deal of emotional depth that includes a high degree of depression and despair (“Goodbye To Love,” “Rainy Days And Mondays,” “I Won’t Last A Day Without You”) as well as happier and more optimistic fare. Later adult contemporary bands would not tend to show an interest in alien-human communication, for the most part, and only some artists (like Peter Cetera) would make music for the children of soccer moms as well as the soccer moms themselves. Overall, this album does a good job at showing the range of Soccermomlandia as well as the tensions that were present within the land from its beginning in desiring music that was up-to-date with the latest production techniques and that showed the romantic longings and frustrations of its audience that sought for lasting love but that was deeply pessimistic and emotionally distraught as a result of the increasing instability and decline of morality within society at large. And while the Carpenters may have been nostalgic, they were by no means traditionalists, and it shows.