This ground-shaking album is actually still underrated
At the time of its release, on February 10, 1971, Tapestry made a quiet entrance. After all, Carole King wasn’t yet a household name. It took a whole two months to enter the Billboard Album Chart. But, once the double-sided “I Feel the Earth Move” / “It’s Too Late” single was released in May, things quickly heated up. By mid-June, the LP was #1, where it would stay for a staggering 15 weeks, tying the hallowed Sgt. Pepper from the Beatles for longest stay at the top for a rock album, up until that point.
There was a great deal of testosterone in the upper echelon: Rod Stewart, the Stones, John Lennon and CSN&Y had all hit #1 in ’71. And yes, Janis Joplin had garnered #1, but only after her untimely passing. Tapestry was something completely different.
That iconic album cover, featuring a barefoot King, clad in jeans and a sweater, her hair obviously not professionally done for this photo shoot – this is not a woman that’s been told to look sexy by a man. This is an independent spirit that’s calling the shots. She’s perched in a window sill, with, not a man, but her cat, somewhat blurry, in the foreground (the feline being the ultimate male substitute). The look on her face isn’t a smile, but more like a “I bet you guys aren’t ready for this.” She’s holding the “tapestry” that she created herself. There’s also light shining in the window – at once both illuminating her face, and obscuring the rest of the room in the process, creating both a warm mood, and a curiosity as to what lies in the shadows – perfect for the music that resides inside.
Tapestry was a nuclear blast on the music world, yet there were no screaming guitars or screeching vocals.
It marked the first time a woman hit #1 with an album totally constructed by her own hand.
The album leads off with “I Feel the Earth Move,” a totally adult woman perspective on love. She isn’t fawning over her boy, and she isn’t crying either – she’s ecstatic. This music was something new – it’s both soul and folk, powered by this fantastic, pulsing bass line and King’s pounding piano, accented by slinky guitar fills. There’s a huge ebb and flow between the quiet verses and the energetic chorus.
“So Far Away” – has there ever been a better song that captures longing? And, there’s really not much going on here sans King’s vocal and piano, yet it’s sheer perfection.
“It’s Too Late” – originally the b-side of the single (the record company deemed it too “dark”), eventually DJ’s and fans began turning the 45 over and gravitating toward this, the greatest breakup song ever (with lyrics written by Toni Stern, who had just ended a relationship with James Taylor). It is absolutely one of the greatest songs ever recorded. The minor chords set the mood, the drums are just so in the pocket – despite its bleak subject matter, the track grooves. The guitar solo is a thing of spontaneous mellowness, bending the notes, as if Danny Kortchmar were playing it in his sleep.
The new songs were powerful. But, what made Tapestry so monumental was King’s decision to revisit songs she had written for other people. Sure, it acted as a calling card, reminding folks that SHE was the one who co-wrote “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” with ex-husband Gerry Goffin. But, her versions of both songs do something more. In the case of the former, a hit for girl group, the Shirelles, she embodies the song with a maturity of someone who’s lived and lost – there’s skepticism in her musical question. In the case of the latter, a smash for Aretha Franklin, she doesn’t so much outdo the original (who could?). Instead, she brings that lofty composition down to earth – essentially saying “anyone can be a ‘Natural Woman.’”
For all its influential status, Tapestry is still a fantastic listen. Few albums emit such warmth. I can only think of Van Morrison’s Moondance or James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James as rivals.
As amazing as Tapestry is, I believe it’s still not given the credit it deserves. In the latest Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums list, it’s lodged at #25 – Aretha, Lauryn Hill and Joni Mitchell all score higher – but I would argue that King’s album opened more doors, especially by selling more copies. Also, when discussing “greatest albums,” do we ever mention King’s masterpiece? We gravitate toward Sgt. Pepper as a landmark, or maybe Dark Side of the Moon. When we suggest “albums you must get when you buy a turntable,” Tapestry is rarely mentioned, but it should be
Tapestry showed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a woman could make it in the male-dominated music business, and do so on her own terms. That nuclear blast opened a hole for many other talented ladies in the decades to come. —Tony Peters