It’s Time to Face the Music: Bring Carole King’s “Music” Out of the Shadows

Carole King performing in the Troubadour Reunion in 2010. Photo credit to Rob Corder on Flickr.

How do you follow an album that’s known for its 14 million units sold, four Grammy awards, two No. 1 singles (“It’s Too Late” and “So Far Away”) and prestigious ranking on Rolling Stone’s list of the all-time greatest albums? I’m not 100% sure if you can achieve every single one of those accolades a second time. As an Esquire writer put it, “Tapestry” is “an enduring reminder of how art can stay engrained in our cultural consciousness.” But if Carole King released her December 1971 album “Music” before February’s “Tapestry,” I’d argue that she would have received just as much recognition. 

Both albums were released in the same year, yet “Music” has been in the shadow of “Tapestry” since the beginning. Because the inherent sound of “Music” differs in some ways from “Tapestry,” many have been tempted to compare. 

However, it’s important to listen without the looming shadow of “Tapestry.” Even if it doesn’t hit immediately, in my experience, I’ve come across the best music when listening with intentionality and without rushing it. That’s the posture I’d recommend entering with when listening to “Music” because King unexpectedly writes and composes in ways that voice lived experiences you wouldn’t have thought could be told beautifully. Face the music, King cannot and should not be limited to one album. 

“Music” opens with the track, “Brother, Brother.” It’s a mix of echoing vocals, strong bass, and grooving drums paired with a smooth trumpet line. The song is a nod to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and an expression of empathy amid the environment of racial violence and hate. But in her wisdom, it’s also a song that speaks loudly about what healing and therapeutic support look like when we tell others we see them and feel with them.

When my mom listened to this song, she said she immediately thought of her brother who struggled with loss most of his life. The strength and beauty of Carole King’s “Music,” in the words of my mom, is “She’s such a good writer; I bet everyone can find a connection.” Even after my mom’s brother passed away, my mom still believes in the lyrics “I’ve been wishin’ only good for you.”

Following “Brother, Brother,” “It’s Gonna Take Some Time” is a well-known tune that was also popularized by the Carpenters in 1972. This song is like wind blowing through iridescent chimes on a blustery day, ushering themes of resilience and flexibility with effusing lyricism and melody lines. I think of my mom with this song. After her brother passed away, she still is taking her time to recover and “bend” like “the young trees in the winter time.” It reminds me of “Tapestry” because of its reliance on the strength of King’s lyricism, piano skills and voice. 

The third track, “Sweet Seasons,” picks up the tempo of the album. A strong bass line paired with piano and drums start the song. It felt the most upbeat/rock n roll with an electric guitar line. It’s optimistic with picturesque hopes: life in the country, sailin’ at sea, etc. There’s a soft crescendo of a horn solo in the music break. To give some context, this album comes out after a season of significant concert touring and work for King. King is home with her kids during this time which probably felt like a “sweet season.”

The transition to “Some Kind of Wonderful” slows down the upbeat precedent set by “Sweet Seasons.” It’s a poignant song with percussion that is more intimate with bongos or a hand drum. She describes love in a moment of “some kind of wonderful” with lyrics like “There’s so much I wanna say / But the right words just don’t come my way.” In ways that words fail, her music fills in with echoing harmonies and vocals.

“Surely” is the second part of the love story. It’s a slow and pensive reflection on devotion. It feels almost like she’s down on her knees pleading for the lover to recognize her steadfastness and love. The bridge of the song uses metaphors in rhetorical questions: “Tell me, does the rain fall? (Surely, surely) / And does the summer always follow spring?” The message reminds me of a song that came out nearly two decades later “More than Words” by Extreme. Her actions are meant to convey her love through a kiss that “more surely than my words can say.” 

Some claim King’s voice isn’t strong enough to carry the following track, “Carry Your Load,” and that it comes off as preachy. But, I love the breaks in her voice when she moves to her higher register. It conveys her emotion, especially in verses like “Thinkin’ alone on a Thursday morning / Of peace and love and war / I still don’t have any answer / But I don’t get high anymore.” The song conveys that she needs to navigate these hard topics on “the road” but not alone. 

The next three songs are some of my favorites on the album because of the poetic lyricism, but they break away from the love narrative arc which returns in the third to last song “Growing Away from Me.”

Music” which the album is named after, is an intimate inside look at King’s songwriting head. And she even conveys, “Ah it’s not always easy,” when music fills your life. This track is a cacophony of beautiful noise with all the instruments: jiving piano, soulful saxophone, driving drums and a sturdy bass line. It feels like she’s painting an abstract art piece of sound, especially when paired with lyrics like, “Pictures are forming inside my brain / Soon, with the colors / They’ll rain together and grow / Then don’t you know there’ll be music.” I can envision splatters of paint in the form of the moving bass line and powerful keys staining the canvas of the recording studio.

If King were to follow “Music” with any song, it was an excellent decision to choose “Song of Long Ago.” Out of all the songs, these were the most poetic lyrics, for example, “Younger than always, time descended / Bringing me new seeds to sow / Now that they’ve been a long time planted / What must I do to help them grow?” With the backing vocals of James Taylor, there’s a warmth of “amber glow” in their “la, la, la.” Their voices are meant to be together. The emotional awareness of Carol King is really seen in lyrics like “And be glad you can feel enough to cry.” In the current age of greater advocacy regarding the power of therapy and emotional awareness, this track really is ahead of its time. This feels like a song of wisdom and a full circle moment “singing a song of long ago / loving people I’ve befriended.”

“Brighter” continues on the upbeat theme set by “Music.” I can’t help but think of the people in my life who make my life better when I listen to this song. My mom came to mind again with this track. She’s the type of person to light up a room, and it’s sweet to know that most people can think of that sort of person when listening. It’s a refreshing perspective shift. The verse, “Some people live in darkness / Their whole life through / I just know that I’d have been one of them / If it hadn’t have been for you” doesn’t rhyme particularly well, but the point of the lyrics fit the song well. 

If I could’ve changed anything about this album, I would move “Growing Away From Me” and “Too Much Rain” up in the order to follow “Carry Your Load.” These songs relate more directly to the love narrative set up by “Surely” and “Carry Your Load.” It would’ve been nice to have the love songs together. “Growing Away From Me” is not my favorite song because the lyrics feel a bit lacking compared to the prowess of lyricism seen in other songs like “Song of Long Ago” and “Music.”

But, “Too Much Rain” brings us back to the universality of her songs. While it could be seen as a song about moving on from a break up, I wonder if the track is also about her experiences “thinking of peace and love and war” in “Carry Your Load”? Maybe, it’s about the hurt that comes from seeing hardship in the lives of people around her? Rain hits all of us and we see the ways in which some get soaked to the bone. Is this what she means when she says, “One day I’m gonna understand / The way that my heart works / And then I’m gonna work it out / Oh, so that I won’t get hurt”? Being an empathetic person can also be a heavy burden. It feels like she explores that experience in “Too Much Rain.”

The album closes out with “Back to California.” It’s a mix of funky dueling piano and electric guitar. I love this song because it encapsulates the desire I often feel for salty air and good tacos whenever I’m away from California. It kind of reminds me of the Beatles’ “Get Back.” Like that song, she’s got some jiving electric guitar, and she put an “ooh” at the end too. What steals the show in this song is her piano skills. They are so strong and prominent. This song definitely felt like rock n roll.

“Music” conveys King as the artist at the canvas with raw, lived experiences as her muse. Like “Tapestry,” King cuts deep into what it means to love, feel and hope.