Albums Worth Listening To: Carly Simon, Letters Never Sent

23 Feb

In 1993-1994 I can’t think of another artist who was both completely mainstream and completely out of touch with current trends than Carly Simon.   While her music from the seventies was still being played in every shopping mall in America, and she still did quite a few soundtracks, not many of her peers made any big albums in that era, and music was a few years away from re-embracing confessional singer-songwriting.  Because of that, I think this album largely got unjustly ignored.

I think this might be Simon’s best all-in-all album that she ever made.  Sure, she had some greater individual songs on other albums, but this album comes with such a powerful and direct voice, cinematic in scope, with a simple theme (Letters Never Sent) that holds everything together.  Each song makes you ask, why was this song from an unsent letter?  Were the emotions too raw?  Were there situational difficulties?  Two of these songs are to people who have recently died, so there’s that too.

In this album, Simon takes a kitchen sink approach, throwing anything that works into each song–harmonica, saxophone, sea-shanty, opera, harmonica, movie orchestra, blues bands–the list goes on, but it’s like a million memories swirling around in a subconscious filled with random other sounds and feelings.   In fact the opening song “Letters Never Sent” while bringing in the theme, and mostly being a blues song, breaks down into a Sgt. Pepper-like montage of snippets of sounds and phrases from all the songs that follow.

Then we fall into the siren-song of “Lost in Love.”  She’s singing in a thunderous voice of the wilderness, the music playing out a sort of heat mirage in the background, building up to a passionate exclamation for an unnamed lover.  The song raises until her voice climbs into a wail of desire “I can’t let you go free until you lose yourself in me.”

And then like opening a different letter “Like a River” is about the death of Simon’s mother.  I’m surprised at how blunt she is here, talking about bickering about her mother’s stuff, until going into the greater part–trying to picture the afterlife as a sort of comfort.  She acknowledges that one relationship is over (mother and daughter) and another has started, and I guess waiting like a river is moving on with life but still being there.  The connection is incredibly touching, and the grief wants to make something beautiful so badly that the song rises up into opera at the end, like climbing up into heaven.  This song isn’t for everyone, but Simon’s working through grief here I find touching.

A small song that Simon’s son sings about how time snuffs all young men.   The end waits for all of us.

“Touched by the Sun” is Simon mourning the death of Jackie Onassis (a personal friend).  I must say, Simon’s voice is in top form, rolling from angel to growl sometimes in one phrase.  This song is also top notch–a little angry, wanting to have the same sort of life that Onassis had–which I never saw Jackie as an example of living free and reaching high (I think she is quite incredible, it’s just that those traits aren’t the first that come to mind) but Simon knew her and I didn’t.

“Davy” is a pleasant, stately, love-lullaby that nicely breaks up the music, and also is incredibly pretty.  This song comes the closest to the kind of music you’d think Carly Simon would sing, incredibly done.  (I notice how she changes things up to keep things interesting like with the “if it feels alright” repetition towards the end of the song.)

The other standout is half-way around the world–the song of Simon the spurned–this is the gospel-blues-folk-sea shanty tune.  A break-up song–she is filled with sarcasm here, directly to her lover.  All the la la las are really fun though.

The Reason–What a weird song, filled with word games that almost run into nonsense–I know she’s saying that the reasons she gives for keeping distance with others are just made up.  “I never can be in love, I can only be in heat.”  She ends up in this lusty sort of playground chant ending with “never felt so hot.”

Private–I’m like OMG how did Tina Turner wander into this album?  Nah it’s still Carly Simon, singing, maybe about an affair, but certainly about a situation where they can’t make their relationship public.  She says that she’ll deny knowing him and end it if he tells.

Catch it Like a Fever–A little drum poem, intense like a bonfire dance.

You Were Born to Break My Heart–Another ballad–the only one that sounds a little nineties to me, though Simon is in fine voice, but it’s a slow piano ballad, about break-ups.

I’d Rather it Was You–We close the album with a rough song about missing people, I think with the same mindset we would all go through after rummaging through old letters.  She’s not missing A person so much here as she’s missing all the missing–the dead, the lost lovers, the disappeared.  It’s not a grief song, but more of a song of absence.  Like maybe it’s about the time to put these letters away and return to the present.  It’s a poignant end to an album that started so huge.

A brilliant album in scope, with dozens of musical ideas–nobody was doing this sort of thing in 1994, and I can say that had Simon consistently had material like this she would be ranked on the same level as Peter Gabriel.  As it is, I will match Letters Never Sent with any other album.

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