I spoke to Carly Simon for No Depression’s Spring 2021 issue, which focusses on the Great American Songbook. Although beloved for her own songs (and what songs they are), Simon demonstrated remarkable foresight in 1981 when she came out with Torch, an album mixing songbook standards with a few new compositions written in a similar vein, including her own unforgettable cri de coeur and marital snapshot, ‘From The Heart’ and Stephen Sondheim’s thunderously anguished ‘Not A Day Goes By’.
Torch was much more than a ‘standards’ or ‘covers’ album. It was explicitly about the torch song, the sub-genre that ennobles romantic loss and mourning. It came at a point in Simon’s life when she was living the torch experience. On its 40th birthday, Torch is as spellbinding and cathartic as at the time of its release. Ardour, regret, grief and frustrated passions have rarely sounded so good, so crushing and so magisterial.
I asked Joe Marchese, reissue producer/consultant/compiler and celebrated liner-note writer and essayist, for his thoughts about Torch. I knew he’d have trenchant perspectives to share. At Second Disc Records, Joe has masterminded brilliant anthologies for everyone from Melissa Manchester to Laura Nyro and beyond, and three of his areas of expertise are singer/songwriters, pre-rock balladry and musical theatre. Torch is one of those rare projects that combines all three.
Would you agree that Carly Simon got in early on the trend of pop/rock artists doing ‘standards’ albums – that it was actually quite a prescient manoeuvre on her part?
JM: It was a prescient move, for sure. I don’t believe Torch ignited the trend of seemingly de rigeur standards albums from countless rock stars, but it certainly anticipated that trend. Some had come before, notably Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey and his pal Harry Nilsson’s A Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. But Carly was no typical rock star, and Torch was no typical standards album. For one thing, she also championed recent songs by Nicholas Holmes and Stephen Sondheim, reinterpreted a ‘50s R&B classic in ‘Hurt’, and penned one new composition herself – integrating them all into a cohesive whole in no small part due to Mike Maineri’s production and arrangements, and the classy orchestrations of Don Sebesky, Marty Paich, Jimmy Wisner, and Robert M. Freedman.
Torch may have been too deeply personal for mainstream commercial success; Linda Ronstadt’s lushly romantic 1982-1984 trilogy of albums with Nelson Riddle made a much greater commercial impact. These were clearly songs that had great resonance for Carly, and she was able to communicate them to the listening audience as if for the first time, without the explicit callbacks to Sinatra or Bennett or Riddle that proliferate on many later standards sets by rock artists. Torch wasn’t fashioned in a big band or cabaret idiom; Carly gave the songs room to breathe within her own, intimate style.
What do you think about the way the album was put together, with a proper concept (‘torch songs’) rather than a prosaic ‘Carly Sings Your Favourite Standards’-type approach?
JM: Torch is in the grand tradition of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours or Sings for Only the Lonely…it sets a late-night mood with ‘Blue of Blue’ and beautifully maintains it throughout, illuminating different facets of love and the lack thereof. I believe the concept itself – who hasn’t loved and lost, and then pondered the hows and whys of the breakup? – in large part accounts for its enduring relevance.
It seems like it was a potentially risky direction for her to take at a point when her sales and prominence, despite an upturn in 1980, seemed to be receding a little. Do you think so?
JM: Absolutely. Every artist had to come to terms with the dramatic shifts in pop music at the dawn of the 1980s, and Carly was no exception. She had acknowledged this sea change with the more pronounced use of synthesizers and rock guitars on Come Upstairs; she would have been expected to follow in this direction. Instead she followed her muse. It could only be described as bold and risky to eschew that cutting-edge, contemporary aesthetic and turn to timeless arrangements of songs written in decades past, some as early as the 1930s.
Now that we can see Torch, not only in the context of Carly’s five-decade (so far) solo career, but also in the context of the slew of covers/standards albums that have followed, how do you thing it holds up? And what relevance do you think it has in 2021?
JM: I think Carly understood something significant about these songs: they’re not relics or antiques, meant to be treated as museum pieces. I’ve always felt that was reflected in that passionate, sensual, and provocative cover. These songs smoldered. They had intensity. She recognized the universal truths in the words of Lorenz Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, and Alec Wilder, and cut straight to the beating heart of these songs. She also didn’t flinch from the pain in ‘Body and Soul’ or ‘Spring Is Here’. That quality alone sets Torch apart from many of the more superficial standards albums that followed, however enjoyable they might have been. She found beauty in the darkness, and also great vulnerability. Sondheim’s lyric in ‘Not a Day Goes By’ is truly brutal – a raw account of the physical pain of losing someone, with no happy ending in sight. Carly imbued that anguish with emotional authenticity. It’s a three-act play in and of itself, and her performance is shattering. Given what she was reportedly facing in her own marriage during this period, it’s all the more remarkable that she turned her own pain into art.
Anything else, whatsoever, that you’d like to say about Torch that my questions above have not prompted?
JM: Torch holds up because it was a marriage of the right songs to the right artist at the right time. The arrangements only gently nodded at the conventions of the period, such as with the synth on ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’, or occasionally the prominent saxophone. On the whole, though, it’s an album that could have been recorded yesterday, as these classic songs and Carly’s deeply-felt treatments of them are ageless. That it wasn’t recorded yesterday, but 40 years ago, is a marvel to behold. I fully expect that young artists will be inspired by ‘That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be’ and ‘Anticipation’ in the same way Carly was by ‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good’, and will reinterpret them, too, to speak to a new generation.