Wednesday, June 29

Boys in the Trees (1978)

Among all of Carly Simon's album covers, Boys in the Trees stands as the pièce de résistance. The inspiration for this sultry, sophisticated image was of course the album's stunning title song. A steamy portrait of the longing, guilt and hesitation that accompanies adolescent sexual awakening, the song's lyrics are among Carly's most introspective and incisive, while the accompaniment - a trio of acoustic guitars that strum and pluck and arrive at sudden, dramatic flourishes - serves as a perfect musical landscape for the swirl of feelings the song depicts. 


It was Carly's own idea that the cover photograph should be a surreal representation of the song. She initially imagined being photographed "in a child-sized bed, with huge trees outside looking threatening", but she credited the photographer Deborah Turbeville with arriving at an even more surreal concept. It was Turbeville, whose work often centres on dancers, who chose the ballet studio as the setting for the album's photographs. On the cover, and by placing her subject off-centre, Turbeville emphasizes the vast emptiness of the studio, and thereby allows Carly's presence - the curve of her body, her thoughtful glance, her delicate pull on the stocking and the silky smoothness of her skirt - to fill the space. The light dusting of foilage on the floor adds to the effect, drawing us into her imagination, and allowing us to speculate on what quietly delicious thoughts are prompting that very slight, sensuous, contemplative smile. It is an image that cannot be taken literally, and so it is more imaginative and feminine than it is intrusive or leering. Thus, it was only right and proper that, while Carly was actually topless during the photo session, a top was painted on to the photograph, covering her bare breasts.


Turbeville took her inspiration not only from the title song, but also from the paintings of Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, and their penchant for capturing the backstage, off-guard, personal moments of women who are public performers. Degas' paintings of ballet rehearsals (see, for example, the image above) are one point of reference, especially for the rehearsal studio setting, while his many paintings of women dressing and grooming themselves (see, for example, La Toilette, below right) are echoed in other photographs from the Boys in the Trees session (compare the image on the left, below).






















Equally, Toulouse-Lautrec's preoccupation with women's stockings is referenced in the cover shot. His The Salon in the Rue des Moulins and his sketch of a woman pulling up her stocking (both above) capture fleeting, candid moments, and reveal a desire to observe feminine space and thought. These images, like the song, are infused with both erotic longing and hesitation. They demonstrate a desire to know and see their subjects in their most intimate moments, as well as a reluctance to interrupt or invade moments so private and beautiful.
 
The cover of Boys in the Trees therefore sets the stage for an album that, even by Carly Simon's standards, is intensely personal. In addition to the title song, songs such as "You Belong to Me", "Haunting", "You're the One", "In a Small Moment" and "For Old Time's Sake" allow listeners to experience the singer's own rush of emotions and to immerse themselves in her feelings, while at the same time admiring her ability to represent them in words and music. To achieve this and maintain a musical sensibility as melodic as the best tunes from Tin Pan Alley or the Brill Building is something to behold. Even in the album's lighter moments - "De Bat (Fly in Me Face)" and "Tranquillo (Melt My Heart)" - everyday occurrences or thoughts are transformed into vividly realised, instantly hummable musical vignettes. 

Like all of her best work, the songs on Boys in the Trees are rich in candour and insight, yet also maintain a soupçon of inaccessibilty. The lines And you know who I am/Though I never leave my name or number/I'm locked inside of you/So it doesn't matter, from "Haunting", might just as well be sung to her audience as to the subject of her own, personal obsession.  In keeping with this, when you open the lavish gatefold album sleeves, you do not find photographs that are more revealing than the cover, but instead shots that are actually more concealing. In the expansive centerfold (below) and the inner sleeve (right), Carly is fully covered, her poise is more studied and formal, and her facial expression more inscrutable. This observation should not be taken as a complaint. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that the push and pull of revelation and concealment enhances our interest.  Little wonder, then, that Turbeville saw in Carly a subject as private, as enigmatic, as sensual and as fascinating as any rendered by Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec; a subject we long to see candidly, but only so that we can admire the mystery more closely.






 

8 comments:

  1. Thanks once again Walter for another wonderfully knowledgeable look into one of Carly's album cover. (This one happens to be one of my favorites.)
    I particularly enjoyed reading and seeing the artwork from Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec that may have inspired the beautiful work of photographer Ms. Tuberville. Just brilliant! Also, I believe the album cover won a Grammy in 1979 for Best Album Package for Art Directors Johnny Lee & Tony Lane.

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  2. It's one of my favourites too. You're right, it did win the Grammy for album design that year, and it went to the art directors rather than the photographer (as far as I can tell). I guess I did not mention that because I don't rate the Grammy Awards very highly. Sure, they got it right in this case, but isn't it astonishing that they did not give CS an award between 1971 (best new artist) and 1988 (best movie theme)? Not a one!

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  3. Yes it is astonishing and really pathetic that Carly did not garner another Grammy win within that time frame. Her work from that period set the standard for singer songwriter excellence.. NO FILLERS on her albums, for sure! I do not think much of the Grammy Awards either. They, like the Rock Hall, seem to be more about self promotion than acknowledgment or celebration of true talent.

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  4. your insights are wonderful. being a photographer myself, i can't help but dissect every single image. deborah turbeville is a wonderful photographer and i love these images. what a beautiful album as well. degas and lautrec - again. perfect.

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  5. Wow, really insightful. I never thought about this album package much before. I actally dismissed this cover as just another sexpot image of Carly, albiet classy, that betrayed the intelligence of the content within.

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  6. Very nice piece of writing. I'm just came across this site and was surprised it existed even - it's so specific! Love it. I became obsessed by Turbeville after her work appeared in the trashy but compelling Faye Dunaway thriller 'The Eyes of Laura Mars'. And I always loved Carly - but 'Boys In The Trees' was, for me, hand-down her crowning achievement as an album, with the title track her best song. The two coming together made sweet music that much sweeter. Adam.

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  7. Thanks, Adam. I don't know "The Eyes of Laura Mars", but I will check it out.

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  8. One of her best albums. One of her best covers. Fully refreshed after a year off from ANOTHER PASSENGER. 1978 - an album at the right place from the right time.

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