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 her 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 her own idea that the cover photograph should represent the title 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 a 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 center, Turbeville emphasizes the vast emptiness of the studio, and thereby allows the singer'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 she 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 intrude upon 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 music and lyrics. 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), she 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 Simon 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.