Thursday, July 7

Spy (1979)

I've got my eye on you, Carly sings in the title song, Nothing's slipping by/Watching everything you do/Like a spy. It is a breezy disco tune, and her voice and a light-as-a-feather flute solo sail along a melody underscored by a strong current of bass. The song's catchy hook line (Undercover lover/Come in from the cold) is characteristically smart and sexually confident, but there is a newly brash mood afoot here, and it is signalled on the album's cover, where Carly really does have her eye on you.

The espionage theme is apparent in her hat (strategically dipped below one eye), and also in the passport-style close-up photograph and stamped imprint lettering. Yet the black-and-white photography, the somewhat harsh lighting, and those marvellously protuding lips are also indicative of the album's new sound. The hat conveys Chaka Khan-style funkiness rather than John le Carré-style subterfuge, and this fits with the jazz-disco-pop fusion that characterizes Spy. True, the album's sound is not so much urban as urbane - the liner notes even reference the erotic diarist Anaïs Nin and her declaration 'I am an international spy in the house of love' - but nevertheless Spy represents a distinct change of pace from previous albums.

One ambition here is to reinvent the singer-songwriter sound, eschewing the laid back, takin' it easy, L.A. country-rock that had become ubiquitous by the late 1970s, when FM radio was ruled by the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Instead, Spy employs a New York sound with fuller, more sophisticated instrumentation: brassy horns, jazz guitar, front-and-center orchestration, and an especially prominent rhythym section. No previous Carly Simon album had so much thumping bass, nor so many crisp cymbals.

Another ambition is to free this particular singer-songwriter from the expectation that every album will offer another set of autobiographical revelations. Most of the songs are less introspective than her earlier work. Spy is an album of disguises rather than one of intimacy, and this may be why the cover photograph and design seem so out of character and even impersonal. The portrait used in the album's centrefold (below) continues the spy-with-the-eye theme but, with Carly flashing her trademark megawatt smile, it is actually a much more appealing and flattering image than the one on the cover. Was it considered too familiar and conventional to front such an ambitious album?

In some instances, the effects of the new musical sensibility are refreshing, even breathtaking. The song "Spy" may be a frothy confection but t is also a delight. "Just Like You Do" is as close as Carly ever came to singing contemporary jazz, and her playful vocal reveals new degrees of spontaneity and shading. "Love You By Heart" demonstrates that her tender ballads can be infused with percussive flair. "Never Been Gone" has a more traditional musical setting, with a church choir and flowing keyboards, but her powerful vocal cuts across the grain of the hymn-like music and lyrics. Singing with full-throated intensity, she sounds as though she is aching to achieve the warmth and peace she describes. Most notably, the first single, "Vengeance", has more raunch and growl than anything she had previously recorded, and it was accompanied by a performance video featuring a dress and dance moves akin to Tina Turner on a hot night in Nutbush (see the stills below).

At times, however, the backing distracts from her own distinctive musical personality. R&B legend Arif Mardin, who provided such artful musical underpinnings on Boys on the Trees, is not so restrained on Spy. To use a car analogy (which seems fair, given the number of cars mentioned in the lyrics of this album), he seems to be treating a Bentley as though it is a Ford Camaro, adding whitewall tires and racing stripes where mere polish would suffice. Far too much of the album is given over to the session players. They represent a dream team line-up (Steve Gadd, the Brecker Brothers and David Sanborn among others) but their solo spots are unnecessary. Who listens to a Carly Simon album hoping for a drum solo? Another issue is that some of the other songs (notably "Coming to Get You" and the eight-minute "Memorial Day") do not seem strong enough to stand on their own, and without the layers of production.

 Oddly, the centrepiece of the album is its most uncharacteristic song, the ballad "We're So Close". It is telling that this is produced more sparingly than the other songs, and that Carly's own piano playing - a staple of her previous albums - is once again at the fore. The chords are mournfully downcast and repetitive, articulating the longing of a woman caught in the doldrums of a marriage, with a relationship that has long since cooled and a husband who is comfortable with the distance and neglect she finds so chilling. The song's final lines - We're so close we can dispense with love/We don't need love at all - are intertwined with Sanborn's quietly tearful sax riff, and this moment of stark honesty makes more impact than anything else on the album. If the song represents the album's most revealing moment, it is startlingly sombre, and here a reason for the many disguises employed on Spy can be found. Her flash and brash new musical persona was a distraction from this unhappiness, not to mention a means of maintaining a viable musical persona at a time when she was expected to create at least a few radio-ready tunes on each album. Certainly, an unused portrait from the Spy sessions, seen on the left, conveys a much different feeling than the photos actually used. Its penetrating gaze would have suited an album named after "We're So Close", but the livelier tones of Spy required a portrait with more charisma and spark, and an eye that does not convey such thoughtful sadness.