Carole King's Tapestry feels like a comfort blanket, until you hear the anxiety within it

James Taylor & Carole King

There she is, a picture of domestic bliss, a cat curled up beside her, relaxed in a baggy jumper, her hair uncombed – free at last. Tapestry looks like an album of restfulness and contentment.

On the reverse side of the cover are the song titles and lyrics, printed on a muted brown that looks like parchment. This is a statement of permanence, significance and independence – the majority of the songs were written in their entirety by Carole King, whose name had been tied together with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin on pretty much every song she had written for the last dozen years. Now here’s Carole singing: “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face … you’re gonna find, yes you will, that you’re beautiful.”

Carole King performs It’s Too Late on the BBC, 1971

Tapestry looked like a self-help manual for 60s burnouts, the survivors of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the disillusioned kids who had visited Haight-Ashbury and found nothing but teenage wasteland. Trust Carole, the sleeve said; you’ve got a friend. You too could live in this amber dusk, jeans on, a cat at your feet. She’s still your friend: in the past few years, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical has become a huge West End hit, and on Sunday she plays Tapestry in concert, in full, for the first time – in front of a crowd of tens of thousands who’ve paid up to £249 to hear the songs of 1971 revisited.

If you look at the rest of photographer Jim McCrary’s session for Tapestry, there is no cat – Telemachus, King’s mackerel tabby, was moved into the frame for the very last shot of the session. Instead, the session is made up of King looking wistfully from her Laurel Canyon home, looking elsewhere. To the east? To the past, maybe? And, while we’re looking at the sleeve more closely, what about those lyrics? “Wherever I am … I’ll come running.” Outside the window, there’s a soft silver sadness in the sky, the sadness of displacement. “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place any more?” she asks. What’s missing? Where is she looking?

The question she had asked in 1960 was Will You Love Me Tomorrow?, and she been rewarded with an international hit, an American No 1 for the Shirelles, who first recorded the song. It was a life-changer for the newlyweds Goffin and King – he was 21, she was 18. Working out of a cubbyhole at 1650 Broadway with nothing but a piano for company, the native New Yorkers wrote about the obsessiveness and giddiness of a crush (Steve & Eydie’s I Want To Stay Here) and the bleakness of a break-up (the Everly Brothers’ Crying in the Rain) better than any of their contemporaries. They understood the parts anyone over 21 might have forgotten, or taken for granted as part of adulthood: Make the Night a Little Longer … just a little longer.

Carole King plays I Feel the Earth Move

Goffin and King were living and writing in real time. Of course, when they grew older they became embarrassed about the way they had felt when they were young, feelings that had been spelled out, recorded, and promoted for all the world to hear. Post-Beatles, and by now in their mid-20s, came Goffin and King’s rococo period. Almost all of their songs from 1965 onwards reflected considerable difficulties in their relationship (Erma Franklin’s The Right To Cry, Dusty Springfield’s No Easy Way Down, Carole’s own single Road to Nowhere), and all of them featured bottomless timpani, string sections recorded in cavernous chambers, impassioned vocals. Soon there was little more than disintegration.

It took another four years for King to write It’s Too Late. Before that, she had a stab at forming a band called the City, who made one exceptional album in 1969 called Now That Everything’s Been Said. It contained the last songs Goffin and King wrote together – Lady, All My Time, the disorientating and lovely Snow Queen. The endgame was a song called A Man Without A Dream – “I feel that I’m growing old much too soon.” Did she feel as embarrassed as her now ex-husband about their early hits? Surely not, as she then went on to record a dozen of them for Tapestry’s understated predecessor, the 1970 album Writer. And with that she could finally let go. Here were Carole King’s versions of the Carole King 1960s songbook. It was time to move on, alone this time.

(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman

That wasn’t so easy. Tapestry is a strange kind of balm, full of secret sorrow. When she sings: “Am I ever gonna make it home again?”, is she referencing the New York where she grew up, married and raised a family? Is she singing about Gerry Goffin, slowly recovering from a breakdown? Or is she singing about the 60s, a home that was lost to everyone with the passage of time? It had been an easier place for King, even if she did have two kids to bring up and a philandering husband – she knew where she was, and where she might be heading. Underneath its warm exterior, Tapestry seems less of a new beginning and much more an anxious look over the shoulder, complete with its glimpses of the glory days (Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Natural Woman). How distant and dreamlike those oldies must have seemed to Carole King in 1971.

Gazing out of a Laurel Canyon window, she’s tying up the loose ends in her lap, but her tapestry is barely half-finished, and her fingers fumble with the warp and weft; she’s come all this way, from one coast to the other, from one man to another, and there are still so many questions. On the title track she sings of a figure in grey who appears “in times of deepest darkness … he’s come to take me back, he’s come to take me back.” But there’s no going back, and she knows it. Somebody, quickly, put a cat in the picture. Somebody, please, put the kettle on.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Bob Stanley, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st July 2016 08.00 Europe/London

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