For listeners today, it’s impossible to listen to the Carpenters without hearing Karen Carpenter’s voice as an aural palimpsest. “In retrospect” figures heavily during any of their songs. Try listening to one of Richard and Karen’s more upbeat numbers, from “Close to You” to the unlikely “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” The tempo is faster, Karen’s chocolate-and-Valium voice has a smile in it, but the songs don’t register. We can’t take a happy Karen Carpenter seriously, because we know “the truth.”
At the same time, songs like “Rainy Days and Mondays” become even sadder. Knowledge that Karen died too young from anorexia nervosa hovers over every lyric. When she sings, “Funny, but it seems I always wind up here with you. Nice to know that somebody loves you,” those of us who take things to their darkest extremes (ahem) can’t help but imagine that she’s singing alone in her apartment to her cat.
Long derided for their easy-rock songs and arrangements (watch the bizarro video the Carpenters filmed for their cover of “Ticket to Ride,” in which Karen wanders around a snowy landscape while Richard plays a teeny-tiny piano), the brother-sister duo are weirder than anyone remembers or gives them credit for. Check out the hymn-like opening to their “California Dreamin’” before it changes into a funky, bass-driven mad-mod song that screams out for listeners to break into the Watusi. And of course, soaring above everything else is the endless, rivetingly strange “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” in which Karen makes contact with aliens.
Because she died young and tragically, Karen Carpenter is often treated as the easy listening Sylvia Plath: a talented woman undone by her personal demons and the neglect of her family. It’s an irresistible story for scandal-devouring audiences (obviously, or this blog would have a very different title), but in the end a reductive one. Karen Carpenter was wildly talented and ultimately undone, but she’s more than a victim. At her best, she transformed her inner pain into something recognizable. And if some of the Carpenters’ work takes on a darker cast when looked back on today… well, how many songs from, say, Jefferson Airplane can you sing along to right this moment?