• Two exciting new Carpenters releases are now available. The new book Carpenters: The Musical Legacy can be ordered here. A big thanks to the authors and Richard Carpenter for their tremendous effort in compiling this book! Also, the new solo piano album Richard Carpenter's Piano Songbook is available for ordering here.

Sadness, melancholy

Jarred

Well-Known Member
Thread Starter
"A lonely, mournful sound she expressed with no effort" and "always with a touch of melancholy"...

Always? I disagree. When the lyrics -the story - of the song called for it, yes. But, not otherwise, and not always, and not naturally. And not without effort. The effort to infuse the vocal with the emotion demanded took a degree of effort, but that effort was just so easy for her.

And where is the sadness or melancholy in "We've Only Just Begun" or "For All We Know" or "You're the One" or "Touch Me While We're Dancing" or "One More Time" or any number of other warm, positive, upbeat songs?

And let's face it - quoting Richard seems to carry less and less authoritative weight after some of the highly questionable and debatable things he had to say in "Legacy" about Karen's drumming abilities or the songs that should or shouldn't have been on some of the albums. I'm sure that even to this day he thinks that double tracking her voice on her lead vocals was a wonderful sonic experience - a real stoke of genius...
We clearly respond to different things when we hear that voice. It took effort to infuse varied emotion into her phrasing but there’s always for me that underlining melancholic tonality. It was just a part of her core.

I think there’s clearly a spirit of sadness coursing through WOJB, both in its production and that lead vocal. I don’t know how someone can hear Karen bursting with exuberance. It’s this inherent emotional dimension of warm distance to her vocal chords that transforms tunes like that For All WK, You’re the One, One More Time and countless more into something so much more complex, shaded, paradoxical and resonant than they read on paper. This is her storytelling trademark for me. Richard’s not always musically on base about her voice but he, in some way, understands something fundamental about that sound of hers.
 

Chris May

Resident ‘Carpenterologist’
Staff member
Moderator
I think it's fair to say there was/is a dark undertone in and throughout most of their work, regardless of the mood or nature that each is trying to convey through a song's recording and production.

Richard was recently quoted as saying they were "high ego, low self-esteem." I believe it is the emotional makeup which was manifested through the latter that is the inevitable ingredient that was infused in and throughout their work. Just my opinion.
 

JohnFB

I was born to belong to the lines of a song...
...
I think there’s clearly a spirit of sadness coursing through WOJB, both in its production and that lead vocal. I don’t know how someone can hear Karen bursting with exuberance. ...
Sorry, but I've listened to WOJB countless times and never once felt any degree or type of sadness - Exuberance is precisely and exactly what WOJB is all about - exuberance and hopefulness for the future and the coming life ahead - which is why it's been used so many times at graduations and weddings and anniversaries...if one wants sadness one plays "Amazing Grace"...
 

Jarred

Well-Known Member
Thread Starter
Sorry, but I've listened to WOJB countless times and never once felt any degree or type of sadness - Exuberance is precisely and exactly what WOJB is all about - exuberance and hopefulness for the future and the coming life ahead - which is why it's been used so many times at graduations and weddings and anniversaries...if one wants sadness one plays "Amazing Grace"...
Lyrically it’s about that but that’s not what I get from her performance. That she would superseded a happy lyric with her own singular gravity is what makes her so compelling and dimensional a performer.

This is from a more modern review that describes a bit of what I’m saying:

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 “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.”

Her voice articulates something that’s buried within the words, and that Richard’s arrangements often, consciously or not, underscore. She often sounds like she’s in a permanent state of incompleteness, but endlessly manifests a bottomless curiosity about who or what has her locked in such an inchoate state, seemingly transmitted from a very private (inner) world. It’s those textures - searching, otherworldly, intelligent and emotional - that keep us coming back. Well, me at least, and I can imagine many others.
 

Mark-T

Well-Known Member
Sorry, but I've listened to WOJB countless times and never once felt any degree or type of sadness - Exuberance is precisely and exactly what WOJB is all about - exuberance and hopefulness for the future and the coming life ahead - which is why it's been used so many times at graduations and weddings and anniversaries...if one wants sadness one plays "Amazing Grace"...
Definitely hope in Amazing Grace. That's the point of the song. :)
 

GaryAlan

Well-Known Member
Speaking only for myself....
It is the awesome beauty of Karen's voice that attracts me. That beauty always was and is number one with me.
Is there melancholy in her voice ? I am sure there is, and one could make a case that it was and is always there.
But, for me it is the beauty, not the sadness, that first captivated me.
Beauty.

Who was it...Tom Nolan, I suppose...who mentioned the chimeric quality. Oh, yes, the Passage liner essay:
".... the chimerical quality of her own art – as soon as you think you’ve categorized her, she reveals another aspect of her range,
one you’d overlooked or forgotten for a while."
 

jcolo1956

Well-Known Member
They had a few other #1's around the world, so they did have more than 8 #1's. I was just reading Carpenters All The Top 40 Hits by Craig Halstead (Createspace, 2021 4th Edition), and he was looking at charts from 19 countries including the US, Canada (before 2000---he couldn't find any charts since RPM ceased in 1999 except the Billboard), Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). He occasionally mentions other countries, like Malaysia where, I think it was "I Need To Be In Love" hit at least #2, but between it hitting #2 and it's final week at #8, there are 6 weeks of charts missing, so it might've even been a #1 in those 6 weeks.
They had a few other #1's around the world, so they did have more than 8 #1's. I was just reading Carpenters All The Top 40 Hits by Craig Halstead (Createspace, 2021 4th Edition), and he was looking at charts from 19 countries including the US, Canada (before 2000---he couldn't find any charts since RPM ceased in 1999 except the Billboard), Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). He occasionally mentions other countries, like Malaysia where, I think it was "I Need To Be In Love" hit at least #2, but between it hitting #2 and it's final week at #8, there are 6 weeks of charts missing, so it might've even been a #1 in those 6 weeks.
Let me rephrase what I originally said: This is for the United States Billboard HOT 100 Chart ONLY that I am referring to ====> "The Carpenters could have had 8 #1's in the Carpenters Career up to Karen's passing instead of the 3 had the 5 #2's been #1's on the United States Billboard HOT 100 Chart". Sorry for the confusion. Thank you.
 

A&M Retro

Well-Known Member
I totally agree with the above comments about the dark undertone of the Carpenters' overall sound. It goes all the way back to the beginning. Take a listen to the 'Offering' album and you'll hear almost a sense of foreboding in Karen's vocals and Richard's arrangements. They were just kids at the time, but it's definitely there. It is interesting this has come up here at the Forum because I've really noticed it in recent months listening to their music. Listen to a song like 'Eve' or 'Crescent Noon' or even 'Yesterday Once More'. It's almost as if Karen was coming from a different place entirely and we were gladly along for the ride. You can't fake that kind of connection between the singer and the listener. It's there.
 

JohnFB

I was born to belong to the lines of a song...
Definitely hope in Amazing Grace. That's the point of the song. :)
Well, I guess if some can find a faint hint of sadness in a song as exuberant and joyful as WOJB, then one can certainly find a degree of that same sadness in a song as hopeful as AG - notice that it's most often heard at funerals these days where a lot of people are naturally very sad - if it doesn't generate the sadness itself it sure is hanging out with that doleful emotion a lot - guilt by association! 🙂
 

Chris

Well-Known Member
Loving this discussion! It shows again that there are many dimensions to the recordings and performances of artists as great as the Carpenters. As diverse people we relate and experience different aspects of those qualities.
I hear the joy and lightheartedness in many of them, but I've always gotten, not exactly sad, but a bittersweet feeling from tracks like "We've Only Just Begun". Even though the lyrics are hopeful and positive, the combination of the melody and their performance, particularly in the verses, has that longing and unfulfilled quality. Or maybe it's just that almost indefinable quality of Karen herself. She was a miracle. Tender, sweet, soulful.. full of depth and unbelievable beauty. Heartbreakingly so.
 

JohnFB

I was born to belong to the lines of a song...
,,,
I hear the joy and lightheartedness in many of them, but I've always gotten, not exactly sad, but a bittersweet feeling from tracks like "We've Only Just Begun". Even though the lyrics are hopeful and positive, the combination of the melody and their performance, particularly in the verses, has that longing and unfulfilled quality. ...

The longing expressed here is not for the people and the good times of the past, but instead for those one will encounter and experience in the future - it is not a sad or even bittersweet longing - it's an excited and hopeful longing looking at all the possibilities to come - it speaks of "eager anticipation" - the sense of being unfulfilled is there only because one hasn't gotten to that future yet, where all (or most) of one's goals will be achieved, i.e., fulfilled. ,

Yes, one can be a cynic, or a pessimist, and say that the song is all "pie in the sky", that it's unrealistic and deceptive, that things won't turn out as planned, that one's dreams won't be fulfilled, that life is never actually like that, that only failure and disappointment lie ahead - and in the end we'll all be dead. If one takes this approach, if one maintains this fatalistic attitude, then it's inevitable (and no wonder) that one feels sadness - but none of that is in the song's lyrics, and to find all that in Karen's gorgeously uplifting vocal performance (to hear it in her voice) would require the unworldly powers of a Superhero...
 

Another Son

Well-Known Member
Sorry, but I've listened to WOJB countless times and never once felt any degree or type of sadness - Exuberance is precisely and exactly what WOJB is all about - exuberance and hopefulness for the future and the coming life ahead - which is why it's been used so many times at graduations and weddings and anniversaries...if one wants sadness one plays "Amazing Grace"...
Exuberance! That’s exactly it! I have always heard exuberance in Karen’s performance of ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ (on record). Not a hint of sadness in it.
 

moog

Well-Known Member
In the same vein, compare "Make Believe It's Your First Time" on VOTH vs Karen's solo album. The simple piano+voice version on the solo record is far superior IMHO.
Someone here (maybe it was also me at some point?) mentioned that the VOTH version is as if a woman is singing intimately to her lover, gently closes the door to the bedroom, and at just the right moment, choir members pop out of the closet to sing backup to the very confused couple ("Just maaaaaaake belieeeeeve...") Choir members sneak out from under the bed. The couple attempts to retreat into the master bathroom for some privacy, but nope: choir members in there too. And now I can't listen to that version without cracking up, because I keep picturing that. :rotf:

("Ugh, I have to get into a serious mood here!" indeed.)

So I listen to the solo album version of that song only. Sometimes less is more.
 

Jarred

Well-Known Member
Thread Starter
Loving this discussion! It shows again that there are many dimensions to the recordings and performances of artists as great as the Carpenters. As diverse people we relate and experience different aspects of those qualities.
I hear the joy and lightheartedness in many of them, but I've always gotten, not exactly sad, but a bittersweet feeling from tracks like "We've Only Just Begun". Even though the lyrics are hopeful and positive, the combination of the melody and their performance, particularly in the verses, has that longing and unfulfilled quality. Or maybe it's just that almost indefinable quality of Karen herself. She was a miracle. Tender, sweet, soulful.. full of depth and unbelievable beauty. Heartbreakingly so.

You wrote this back in 2004, and after finding it some years back I never forgot it:

“While listening to "We've Only Just Begun" I was struck by the sadness that is expressed in the sound of that whole performance. Even though the lyrics are full of hope and new beginnings, when you listen to the music and Karen's vocal, it's filled with a spirit of melancholy. Such an achingly beautiful longing and sadness is expressed in the spirit of that record.

It's no wonder that so many of us found solace in their music when we were young or going through loneliness, pain, longing, etc. I think that within Karen, many of us found a kindred spirit. Someone who was a friend and comfort by not only providing us with some of the most beautiful sounds on earth, but someone who knew what we were going through on some level and could express it for us. She was the caged bird who sang for our own heavy hearts.”


It’s fascinating to me that some people can hear pure exuberance and joy where others hear enigmatic despair coursing through one of her performances and the arrangement. I don’t want to say that some people are wanting to hear something else (I.e don’t like a mix of upbeat lyrics with a vocal that endlessly supersedes it with something vastly more complicated) but it’s curious.

This is my favorite version of the song and for me the depth she puts into it shines through the clearest here. You can hear her almost break with sorrow on those now precisely heard “so much of life ahead…”:

 

JohnFB

I was born to belong to the lines of a song...
...

It’s fascinating to me that some people can hear pure exuberance and joy where others hear enigmatic despair coursing through one of her performances and the arrangement. I don’t want to say that some people are wanting to hear something else (I.e don’t like a mix of upbeat lyrics with a vocal that endlessly supersedes it with something vastly more complicated) but it’s curious.

This is my favorite version of the song and for me the depth she puts into it shines through the clearest here. You can hear her almost break with sorrow on those now precisely heard “so much of life ahead…”:

...
It's very interesting and instructive that the idea of "wanting to hear something else" is brought up here - I was having the same thoughts about those who may be wanting or insisting on finding sadness to any degree in a vocal performance where there so obviously isn't the slightest inkling of it, but decided not to do that because it gets into the muddy waters of psychological intent or motivation or deception which are always dangerous to navigate...

I do agree that that is a wonderful version of the song, and is my favorite too - but not because I hear her voice "almost break with sorrow" at any point. I don't - all I hear is hope and excitement for the future. What truly excites me about this performance is what I don't hear. I don't hear Karen over-singing or double-tracking her own voice on the choruses and they are as pure and natural and real and beautiful as they always could have been, and should have been on the over-produced recording - and on a lot of their other recordings...
 

Jarred

Well-Known Member
Thread Starter
It's very interesting and instructive that the idea of "wanting to hear something else" is brought up here - I was having the same thoughts about those who may be wanting or insisting on finding sadness to any degree in a vocal performance where there so obviously isn't the slightest inkling of it, but decided not to do that because it gets into the muddy waters of psychological intent or motivation or deception which are always dangerous to navigate...

I do agree that that is a wonderful version of the song, and is my favorite too - but not because I hear her voice "almost break with sorrow" at any point. I don't - all I hear is hope and excitement for the future. What truly excites me about this performance is what I don't hear. I don't hear Karen over-singing or double-tracking her own voice on the choruses and they are as pure and natural and real and beautiful as they always could have been, and should have been on the over-produced recording - and on a lot of their other recordings...
I had a feeling you or someone else would pull the reverse on what I said. Lordy. Not that I needed the validation as such, but I know with certainty (beyond the quotes I’ve posted here) that there are countless people who hear exactly what I do, and these are people who likely have not attached any kind of psychological motivation to what they hear. When I hear this plaintive tone/phrasing of hers I’m thinking and feeling different things within the context of the lyric and music, but my mind isn’t going to “oh, well we know how much anguish she felt her whole life so I’m going to project that onto what I hear to give it more meaning”. It’s a flurry of complexity with effortless expression that I instinctively respond to. I could know nothing of her personal life and come to this same conclusion.

I don’t know you in the slightest beyond what I’m reading here and perhaps you are a fully fulfilled, genuinely happy guy, but I think it’s those with a melancholy core themselves that respond so powerfully and truthfully to such a vocal tone on a song that would seemingly suggest otherwise.
You might hear it on Superstar because the mise en scene is highlighting this darker undercurrent, whereas WOJB or CTY you don’t hear this because it’s lyrically something that’s brighter. This is complicated further by the fact that even the arrangements on the latter two songs I think are framing and suggesting something “off” about the supposed sunny simplicity of the words we hear. But all I know is my own psychology enough between the two of us, though broadly speaking, this is what I tend to notice about what certain brains pick up on nuances that others don’t in specific contexts.
 

A&M Retro

Well-Known Member
I had a feeling you or someone else would pull the reverse on what I said. Lordy. Not that I needed the validation as such, but I know with certainty (beyond the quotes I’ve posted here) that there are countless people who hear exactly what I do, and these are people who likely have not attached any kind of psychological motivation to what they hear. When I hear this plaintive tone/phrasing of hers I’m thinking and feeling different things within the context of the lyric and music, but my mind isn’t going to “oh, well we know how much anguish she felt her whole life so I’m going to project that onto what I hear to give it more meaning”. It’s a flurry of complexity with effortless expression that I instinctively respond to. I could know nothing of her personal life and come to this same conclusion.

I don’t know you in the slightest beyond what I’m reading here and perhaps you are a fully fulfilled, genuinely happy guy, but I think it’s those with a melancholy core themselves that respond so powerfully and truthfully to such a vocal tone on a song that would seemingly suggest otherwise.
You might hear it on Superstar because the mise en scene is highlighting this darker undercurrent, whereas WOJB or CTY you don’t hear this because it’s lyrically something that’s brighter. This is complicated further by the fact that even the arrangements on the latter two songs I think are framing and suggesting something “off” about the supposed sunny simplicity of the words we hear. But all I know is my own psychology enough between the two of us, though broadly speaking, this is what I tend to notice about what certain brains pick up on nuances that others don’t in specific contexts.
That version is just incredible! Thanks again for re-posting it and thanks again to Motown Boy for creating it. It's extraordinary.

After listening through to the end, I thought about something that Richard has mentioned many times throughout their career and beyond it. He says they always went for the potential 'chill factor' of a song. If it grabbed him a certain way, it became a possible track for them to record. Having that goal in the back of his head obviously influenced his arranging and production, and, of course, Karen's take on the song. 'We've Only Just Begun', 'Superstar' and' 'Bless The Beasts and Children' (to name but a few) certainly have a more ominous 'chill factor' just like 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' or myriad other songs by other artists. But Karen and Richard were PROS at finding those songs and bringing out the best in them.
 
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JohnFB

I was born to belong to the lines of a song...
...but I know with certainty (beyond the quotes I’ve posted here) that there are countless people who hear exactly what I do, and these are people who likely have not attached any kind of psychological motivation to what they hear. When I hear this plaintive tone/phrasing of hers I’m thinking and feeling different things within the context of the lyric and music,

...
Countless people? Sorry, but I have to cast cold, hard doubt on that. I think you would be very hard pressed to find one person in any size large group who would seriously and honestly say that they feel or hear sadness or despair or grief or hopelessness or any other negative emotion when listening to WOJB - nor will anyone say they hear a "plaintive tone" anywhere in the vocal performance - of all the many reactions I've seen online to this song not one person has ever mentioned any such emotions, but just the exact opposite...similarly, one can look at the most beautiful sunset ever and if one absolutely insists on it, or demands it, or is bound and determined in the face of all evidence to the contrary, call it ugly...
 

Jarred

Well-Known Member
Thread Starter
Countless people? Sorry, but I have to cast cold, hard doubt on that. I think you would be very hard pressed to find one person in any size large group who would seriously and honestly say that they feel or hear sadness or despair or grief or hopelessness or any other negative emotion when listening to WOJB - nor will anyone say they hear a "plaintive tone" anywhere in the vocal performance - of all the many reactions I've seen online to this song not one person has ever mentioned any such emotions, but just the exact opposite...similarly, one can look at the most beautiful sunset ever and if one absolutely insists on it, or demands it, or is bound and determined in the face of all evidence to the contrary, call it ugly...
I’ve posted like four quotes alone in this thread where people have said they picked up on such a melancholy tone in her voice on “happy” songs. We must be running in different online circles in terms of what we look up regarding opinion on the duo because I have certainly seen plenty of people respond the way I have. From fans, casual listeners, to music people who love/respect their music, a good many have ears/brains that respond to the sound just as I have. I’m not sure why this is a problem. I think it’s kind of fascinating, this discussion, though. My friend and I talk a lot about the complexity of the C’s lives and music often, and the kind of reaction you’re having is a branch of what we muse over.
 

Jarred

Well-Known Member
Thread Starter
This seems like an appropriate moment for the momentous first post (hello!)

The melancholy struck me the first time I ever heard Karen sing. I was very young at the time with absolutely no idea who she was or what had happened. Close to You was played on the TV and I just remember thinking, "she sounds so sad". And it made me sad, too - to the extent that, for years, I convinced myself I didn't like the Carpenters; because hearing Karen would make me sad. I know better now, of course.

I remember listening to an interview with Bat for Lashes (who recorded her own version of WOJB) who was also touched by Karen's singing as a kid, because it made her think of her mum and the day-to-day struggles she faced. Reminded of my own initial reaction, I thought that was quite powerful. Maybe it goes some way to explain why, as adults, many find Karen's voice comforting in difficult times: melancholic, sure, but relatable and somehow knowing, conveyed with intimacy.

I suppose such a range of responses only serves to highlight how awesome she really was.
Welcome, and this is a very good and relevant first post on here where there’s a wide variety of people with such interesting, complex and detailed opinions. I think her unique kind of melancholy is at once human and otherworldly in tone, she connects to something possibly binding all of us or a distant, overview glimpse of a kind of “subtext”, yet her tonality is so warm and intimate that it feels deeply personal and interior for each listener. That’s a rare kind of genius.
 
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