Carly Simon Essay - Critical Essays

Simon, Carly


Carly Simon 1945–

American songwriter.

Simon is best known for writing lyrics that honestly and realistically evaluate life's predicaments. In her first popular success, "That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," Simon views marriage as a complex social institution which inhibits individuality yet protects people from loneliness. Simon deals with the bitter aspects of personal relationships in many of her songs, including "You're So Vain." However, the emotions and situations in her best lyrics, and her treatment of the problems of the upper-middle-class woman, are understood by all types of listeners.

Carly Simon, her debut album, was both a critical and commercial success. Her later records, however, have received mixed reviews. Some critics believe that Simon has lost interest in writing about social hypocrisy and putting forth a universal message since her marriage to songwriter James Taylor. Although she collaborates on some of her lyrics, most often with Jacob Brackman, critics attribute Simon's popularity to her ability to sensitively and confidently analyze complicated human situations.

Timothy Crouse

Carly Simon [is] a very beautiful, if very different, album….

[Carly's] style is difficult to pin down. She is a Sarah Lawrence graduate and she unabashedly writes like one. Much more than Randy Newman, who was once carelessly labelled "the king of the suburban blues," Carly writes songs dedicated to the proposition that the rich, the well-born and the college-educated often find themselves in the highest dues-paying brackets. Some of the songs on this album sound like [John] Updike or [J. D.] Salinger short stories set to music.

These are personal songs written by a woman caught in a classic post-graduation bind: she has a fierce desire for independence; at the same time, frightened of loneliness, she longs for the security of marriage. In song after song, she gives in and opts for marriage, sometimes to find that her man has lost patience and split….

The loneliness of the sophisticated city girl in Carly's songs is mitigated by a career, travel, college friends (all these things are alluded to in the lyrics)—and no doubt, by a psychotherapist or two. But what this persona lacks in intensity, she makes up for in complexity. The woman in these songs is at once passionately romantic and cynically realistic….

[What] makes this record exceptional is its subject matter. Like very few recent records, it strikes close to a lot of middle class homes.

Timothy Crouse, in his review of "Carly Simon," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission). Issue 79, April 1, 1971, p. 50.

Bruce Harris

If [Carly Simon] was Carly Simon's tenth album it would have been an amazing feat. But it is only her first album, and that makes it something in the order of a miracle.

It is a rarity indeed to have an artist on her first album emerge as a totally developed talent. But Carly Simon is that rarity….

Her lyrics are pointed, searing, and honest, She writes of experiences between people, and so her songs, though deeply personal, have a painful universality to them. When she sings in Reunions of people who used to be friends trying desperately to perpetuate dead friendships, she is singing for all of us….

Carly's thinking, like her artistry, is mature. She has a lot of fire, but she also has the ability to channel that fire and make it work for her. Rather than screaming about tearing down the walls and about the blood in the streets, she sings powerfully and realistically of personal revolutions in which each individual confronts the challenges of his life on his own terms and conquers the demons of the world by first conquering the demons at home. In her hit single, That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be, for instance, Carly deals with the social traps that lead so many of us into lives of quiet desperation…. (p. 49)

Carly Simon is more than just another great find. She is it. Past all the hypes and the hits, Carly is the most exciting new artist we've got going these days. With a first album like this, the future looks very bright indeed. (pp. 49-50)

Bruce Harris, in his review of "Carly Simon" (© 1971 by Jazz & Pop Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), in Jazz & Pop, Vol. 10, No. 5, May, 1971, pp. 49-50.

Richard Williams

It's terribly easy to put ["Carly Simon"] on once, decide that it's very pleasant, and then forget it. Unlike [Laura] Nyro, Simon doesn't have any immediately identifiable trademark which gets the ear hooked straight away. What's so good about her, then?… [She] writes songs of an unassuming excellence. Take the opening cut, "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be."… [It's] so honest and unfashionable that it has to be autobiographical, and it's one of the most piquant love songs I've heard in ages…. [There's] enough in the other songs to suggest that Carly Simon will become a major force. She's possessed by that valuable ability to articulate the personal and, in the process, convert it into the universal.

Richard Williams, in his review of "Carly Simon," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), May 15, 1971, p. 27.

Stephen Davis

If there are traces of an emerging, strong female consciousness on [Anticipation], they appear as much in [Carly Simon's] attitude to her role as a musician and singer as in the music itself. The music of Anticipation consists of starkly frank and carefully manicured songs about the vagaries of the male/female saga. They are a strange set of love songs, more like a cycle of the wide range of the emotional pulls and tugs that love connotes. She sings sometimes as an acute observer of the life conditions of a fellow human, sometimes as an equal partner in a shattered affair, sometimes as a bemused annotater of losing battles and the highly-charged moment flying away.

The title song is the first cut. "Anticipation" is a spirited examination of the tensions involved in a burgeoning romantic situation in which nobody has any idea of what's going on or what's going to happen….

"Legend in Your Own Time" is about anyone who has achieved a measure of fame and has been working at it since their youth. That the most famous folks are often the loneliest is one of the tiredest truisms in show-biz, but Carly convinces the listener that her story is a personal one rather than a generalization. "Our First Day Together" is a re-creation of just that. It's a quiet song, lovely and quite enigmatic….

"The Garden" and "Three Days" are a pair of disparate love songs, the first an image-filled idealization, the second a lovely, wistful realization of a pair of musicians in love, people who have to travel away from each other after three shared days of intensity….

I don't think Carly Simon wants anything to do with her image as the Woman of the Future. All she is really is a maturing musician who is a woman and who is making excellent music, and that should be enough for anyone. Forget the labels, listen to the music.

Stephen Davis, "Carly Simon's Second," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 98, December 23, 1971, p. 66.

Noel Coppage

Carly Simon's work on melodies and words bears the same tool marks as Kris Kristofferson's…. [As] lyricists, both tend to be self-centered even for this generation. Whatever ambiguities are thrown in for a wide audience to identify with are almost branded as such—tag-lines or aphorisms interjected or pinned on. Carly's Anticipation goes through a specific description of how unpredictable the author finds a new love affair…. Both are romantics, and no doubt think of themselves as tough-minded romantics…. Both are concerned with writing intelligent lyrics that are nonetheless simple enough to reach the listener on an emotional level. That remains one of the toughest jobs in the business, and Carly is almost as good at it as Kris is. (p. 59)

Noel Coppage, "Troubadettes, Troubadoras, and Troubadines … or … What's a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Business Like This?" in Stereo Review (copyright © 1972 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 29, No. 3, September, 1972, pp. 58-61.∗

Robert Christgau

Except for "One More Time," Simon's compositions [on Carly Simon] sound stiff and overperformed, typical rock-as-art jive. At the time I closed my ears and hoped she would go away. (p. 292)

"That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be" is in the noble tradition of "Leader of the Pack" and "Society's Child." In all three a young woman's challenge to the social limitations of romance is milked for melodrama, and in all three, realistically enough, she capitulates. Of course, Simon's song comes on more sophisticated, although it's worth noting that "Society's Child" seemed equally sophisticated five or six years ago. In any case, sophistication ruins Simon's song. Only in such a painstakingly...

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Stephen Holden

In the degree of its intelligence and forthrightness [No Secrets] is the equal of its predecessors….

The obvious highlight of No Secrets is the hit single, "You're So Vain," an affectionately high-spirited putdown of a male chauvinist glamour boy….

[Of the album's] other cuts, five take up the subject of time—lovers' time versus childhood time—playing variations on Carly's favorite theme. The implicit assumption behind these songs is the difficulty of being happy, especially when in love, without over-analyzing one's happiness so as to dissipate its intensity. The realization that emotion and rationalization are often irreconcilable is most painfully expressed...

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Ed Kelleher

[No Secrets is Carly Simon's] third try at making a good lp and it offers neither the curious changeability of the first nor the refined mediocrity of the second. But it is undeniably one of the most commercial records of the past year….

As a songwriter, Carly has a few shortcomings. Sometimes she reminds me of an overzealous Thom McAn's clerk as she shoehorns lyrics into musical position. But far more distressing is her apparent lack of anything to say. Anything very original, that is. Conventional generalities and staid value judgments abound. Her formative years must have been fraught with a whole carload of doubts and perils. The spectres of God, Daddy, the Next Door Neighbors,...

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Loraine Alterman

["Hotcakes"], Carly Simon's fourth album, demonstrates her continuing concern with basic human relationships…. "Hotcakes" reflects Simon's perceptions about sharing her life with someone she loves. The album's first song, "Safe And Sound," states the premise that the whole world may be topsy-turvy crazy, but it's somehow safer to go through it all with another human being….

It seems to set the scene for the rest of the album….

"Misfit" and "Haven't Got Time For The Pain" delve more deeply into the love relationship. Each song says in its own way how being involved with another person can help one overcome his or her own problems. "Misfit" is tough and even sarcastic whereas...

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Michael Oldfield

Love is a many splendoured thing and all that—but sometimes it's not necessarily all you need. "Hotcakes" is a case in point. One of the strengths of Carly Simon's previous albums has been her lyrics; they carry a sting in the tail that few other singer-songwriters can match. She's also capable of communicating invective—"You're So Vain"—that shows up the railing against the world in general adopted by so many singers for the embarrassments they are. It's quite a skill to be nasty in a song—and Carly's got it. She also has a knack for writing about specific events rather than abstractedly painting a word picture of a mood or a feeling. Loneliness at the top, for example, is a subject that's always been popular...

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Susin Shapiro

Hotcakes wants to sizzle but when you take that first serious chew, the flake falls away and the words are runny, underdone.

Gone is the soft loneliness and sad cynicism of Carly's Anticipation album…. [Carly] seems to have lost that adrenal-inspiration only touring can ignite. It's been replaced by maritally exuberant content and a stay-at-home pace, doubtless totally fulfilling to live but less fun to eavesdrop on. "Forever My Love" … extols this bliss best.

Carly's songs have never been "heavy" or involving, but there was always enough successfully sublimated social comment and repetitive rhythms to make you whistle along in the shower or hum in the subway buzz....

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Michael Watts

Having listened to ["Playing Possum"] more than half a dozen times now, what clear and precise thoughts does it provoke? The answer is, to the best of my ability, that there's little provocation at all, beyond, that is, the picture on the cover….

The songs within comprise music of controlled sensuality, but the mood is too languorous to generate much real heat. Carly Simon's a tease and a society broad. You knew it with "You're So Vain," but on "Playing Possum" she extends that role, even to the point of including a song called "Are You Ticklish."… It's tempting to think of her as Joni Mitchell without depth; even her sensuality seems mere artfulness, the refined and coolly calculated product of...

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Stephen Holden

The cover of Carly Simon's enjoyable new album is an indication of its best songs, which celebrate the body at play. Playing Possum represents a breakthrough of sorts for Simon. Earlier albums, through Hotcakes, depicted adolescent and postadolescent growing pains, family relationships and especially an aching romantic ardor. Simon's new, bolder stance was probably inevitable—it's certainly welcome—since her previous four albums have defined a slow but steady movement away from the "sensitive singer/songwriter" role toward that of "rock" songstress….

With Playing Possum, Simon has largely abandoned plaintive balladeering for a blunt style that means to be aggressively sexy....

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Peter Reilly

Carly Simon's new album "Playing Possum" … is an intelligent, mind-warming romp and an almost continuous musical joy…. [She] has gotten her head together, in 1975 terms, better than any other young female composer-performer around.

The sexual revolution? Put such pedestrian back-numbers out of your mind. Carly has clearly moved beyond all that. Listen to her in Look Me in the Eyes…. Quite frank, as we used to say, but also as clear-eyed, healthily straightforward, and up-to-the-minute as can be for an honest woman dealing with these matters today.

Slightly more ambivalent is her approach to the Lib game in Slave…. [The] song is a statement of fact, how things...

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Allan Jones

["The Best of Carly Simon"] is really quite unremarkable in that it reveals her to be, despite (or even because of) her undeniable popularity, a relatively minor talent. And, although we are presented here with a selection of work which covers the last five years of her career, there is an absence of any thematic or musical development. Despite the early promise of "Carly Simon,"… represented by "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be," and "Anticipation"—the title track and "Legend In Your Own Time" are featured here—she has not matured like her contemporary, Joni Mitchell. She lacks, too, the vivid perception which characterises the work of the sadly-neglected Laura Nyro. One has, however, to...

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Colin Irwin

For someone who's produced albums of the substantial bite of "No Secrets" and "Anticipation," Simon's capable of the most crass banalities. On half of ["Another Passenger"] she appears to be striving to recapture the sardonic wit of "You're So Vain" but falling miserably short, while the rest show all the symptoms of half-hearted fillers…. When she tries to rock she ends up in a trot, and her attempts at tenderness finish flat. On the few occasions that she captures the right mood in her performance, the songs are either frivolous or lacking in credibility. The good track is "In Times When My Head," a ballad which deals with the guilt complex of an unfaithful woman, but even that has suspicions of cliché, though...

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Ken Tucker

"Cowtown," a song Carly Simon has written for Another Passenger, tells the story of a cagey French woman named Simone Swann who marries a Texas millionaire for his money, and because she's lonely. In the second verse, Swann prepares to accompany the Texan to his native land…. [Simon's song] is the sort of lucid, humorous and concise observation for which Randy Newman, say, would be praised to the skies. I'll venture a guess that Carly Simon won't be huzzahed for her verbal dexterity and wit, however. If past reviews are any indication, a goodly number of her notices will consist of arch compliments of the gams displayed on the back cover.

Another Passenger is Carly Simon's best...

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Peter Reilly

Carly Simon's back, smarter, more ironically perceptive, and more engaging than ever…. ["Another Passenger"] is another totally classy job from a foxy lady who not only knows where it's all at, but doesn't mind letting you know, in an offhand way, that her pearls of wisdom have cost her a pretty penny or two in the purchase…. In Times When My Head [is not] precisely about staying cool at all costs:… [it] is as good a description of self-destructive jealousy as one would really care to hear about. This ability to deal honestly and directly with emotional life has always been one of Carly's major strengths, and it permeates all her songs here. (pp. 88-9)

Carly Simon, chansons à...

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M. Mark

[On Boys in the Trees Carly Simon is] obscure and artsy in her ruminations about sexual insecurity. Boys in the Trees includes a couple of songs that say without-my-man-I'm-worthless-and-he'll-leave-me-'cause-I'm-worthless. The new single, "You Belong to Me," presents her response—mostly desperate, with a neat hint of egocentrism—to her man's announcement that he's in love with someone else. There's still a high school feel to her songs—it's boys in the trees—but Carly seems less anguished over whether she'll get asked to the prom.

Which is smart. She's too sleek and well-adjusted to be a credible victim; if Carly went up to Saratoga, guess whose horse would win. Boys...

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Janet Maslin

[Boys in the Trees suggests a] feeling of grateful, hopeful and also slightly cautious contentment….

Boys in the Trees is Carly Simon's most serene accomplishment to date, but its moods vary dramatically enough to indicate that peace of mind comes at a high price….

The scrubbed-down Simon is a mightily seductive creature and also a somewhat mocking one, but for once these elements are firmly controlled….

Boys in the Trees has a few holes, but there are no major craters—and for an artist as erratic as Simon once was, achieving this kind of consistency amounts to a major break-through…. ["Haunting"] is a throwback to Carly Simon's more...

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Jon Young

Carly Simon used to be dangerous. Remember? She had to her credit a lethal attack on marriage ("That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be") and one of the most quotable put-down songs ever ("You're So Vain"). Those were the days.

But she threw it all away. After having scored a direct hit on the institution of holy matrimony, she had the gall to go and get hitched! Shocking. For whatever reason, her music consequently lost much of that restless and abrasive (some said obnoxious) quality so crucial to its personality. Indeed, so important had that edge been that, without it, her albums' statements were made by the silly covers rather than the contents….

Simon's failure to keep...

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Stephen Holden

As the social queen of East Coast pop-rock, Carly Simon can be counted on to put out well-tailored product that defines "class" (lots of money tastefully spent) to the industryites and consumers who regard the pop world as a toney horse race. With their tense fake-natural glamor, Simon's albums amount to aural fashion shows. Each year, an expensive name producer is engaged to design a collection that cautiously incorporates the latest trends and squeezes one or two hits out of the star's new material, thus validating her writing talents and recertifying her first-lady status commercially. (p. 50)

I've long thought that if Simon would scrap all but the best of her own songs and concentrate on singing...

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Peter Reilly

Carly's songs on ["Spy"] show her at her tough-minded best, asking no quarter and offering none. Like her literary counterparts Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion, Carly Simon sees and allows herself to feel a great deal more than the average privileged, upper-middle-class young woman—probably much more than she'd like to. In We're So Close she offers a clear-eyed description of one of those strangely bloodless relation-ships so many people cling to these days…. [No] matter how much it may chill the marrow of sentimentalists or romantics, Carly Simon has the courage to tell it like it is.

She also has the courage to touch on something that's rarely discussed: violent female rage....

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Debra Rae Cohen

All too often on Spy, the small, significant personal questions that the songwriter is capable of asking are obscured by a lascivious "Does she or doesn't she?" Even the Rolling Stones-style backup vocals on the catchy "Pure Sin" can't rescue its central oxymoron from tedium, because the extremes simply aren't that interesting. Though Simon's not the artistic wallflower she presents in "Memorial Day" …, she's no rakish hot mama either. Indeed, the dreary mock twang of "Coming to Get You" reminds me of academicians who write in dialect.

All of this cartoons-for-adults posturing doesn't disguise the fact Simon gives away very little of herself on Spy. She's always been of two minds...

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Ken Tucker

On Come Upstairs, Carly Simon's instincts are bold, but her music betrays her. Confronting a self-imposed semiretirement, declining disc sales and the pervasive peppiness of the New Wave, Simon has responded with a comely perversity by writing a batch of new songs that are either loose and trashy or tight and morose….

[The] current album is so confused and boring that it almost sounds resigned to its own aesthetic failure. Come Upstairs commences with some promisingly slick, bitchy pop (the title track, "Stardust"), then quickly sheds its allure with witless paranoia ("Them") and ballads oozing with cliched imagery ("Jesse," "James"). The peak of discomfort is "In Pain," in which...

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Peter Reilly

["Come Upstairs"] is not only filled with risks, some daring and impromptu, others cannily calculated, but also with a wry, grown-up self-awareness that is light years away from the squishy self-absorption of so many of [Carly Simon's] contemporaries. And it is an album that continues the upward arc of a career that's been a success almost from its very beginnings…. She has at least three songs in this new collection that are as good as anything she's done before; they offer further proof that she is the possessor of a dynamic sensibility unerringly in tune with the kind of world we're living in at the moment.

Come Upstairs and The Three of Us in the Dark are both brilliant examples...

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