Revisiting Karen Carpenter’s final album

Jon O'Brien 28 July 2021

A full 40 years on from its release, we take a look back at the final album Karen Carpenter recorded before her tragic death

The Carpenters’ 1981 tenth album, Made in America, was supposed to launch a triumphant comeback from a duo whose easy listening sound had helped to smoothly usher in the previous decade. Instead, it turned out to be the siblings’ desperately sad swansong.

Richard and Karen had spent the three years since stopgap Christmas Portrait battling very different demons. Following a six-week stint in rehab, the former had taken a 12-month break from music to fully recover from his addiction to Quaaludes. The latter, meanwhile, was still very much in the denial stage of her battle with anorexia nervosa. “I was just pooped” was Karen’s explanation when asked explicitly by Sue Lawley about her worryingly emaciated appearance during an interview on the BBC’s Nationwide.

"Karen was still very much in the denial stage of her battle with anorexia nervosa"

Admittedly, Karen had been working hard during The Carpenters’ hiatus, albeit to frustratingly little avail. The singer/drummer recorded an eponymous full-length solo effort with Grammy-winning producer Phil Ramone, only for A&M label boss Herb Alpert to shelve its release on hearing its 11 tracks. Immensely proud of the record—which included a cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years,” a duet with Chicago’s Peter Cetera and a few tentative forays into disco—Karen was understandably left heartbroken by the rejection.

However, she remained steadfastly loyal to her older brother, who’d also expressed his disapproval of her attempts to move out of his shadow. And so the pair resumed their career with a throwback to the lushly-orchestrated adult contemporary pop they’d made their name with.

Indeed, while 1977’s Passage was a relatively experimental listen which tackled everything from Evita showtune “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” to the space rock of Klaatu’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft,” its proper follow-up was very much a tried-and-tested affair.

The gently lilting melodies and Mantovani-esque strings of opener “Those Good Old Dreams” bears more than a passing resemblance to the second of their three US number ones, “Top of the World.” Sentimental ballad “Somebody’s Been Lyin’” saw the pair take on a Burt Bacharach composition for the first time since the medley on their 1971 self-titled LP. They even covered Motown girlband The Marvelettes again just six years after topping the charts with “Please Mr Postman.”

"However, she remained steadfastly loyal to her older brother, who’d also expressed his disapproval of her attempts to move out of his shadow"

Although it failed to recapture the same joys, “Beechwood 4-5789” did give The Carpenters their final Billboard hit. But on the whole, Made in America was considered a commercial disappointment, peaking at a lowly No.52 in the country its title celebrated. 

Revisionists may argue that its lack of success was inevitable considering that 1981 was the year of new wave, synthpop and MTV. Yet the pair had always been out of touch with what else was in vogue at the time. That was a major part of their appeal after all. And the fact that Lionel Richie & Diana Ross’ “Endless Love” and “Christopher Cross’ “Arthur’s Theme” both reached the US top spot soon after proved that audiences were still accepting of middle-of-the-road pop.

Quite simply, Made in America wasn’t strong enough to restore The Carpenters to their former glories. The group’s biggest asset, Karen’s beautifully melancholic voice, is often drowned out by Richard’s overbearing production—some fans believe to punish his sister for her solo ambitions. His subsequent assertion that this was Karen’s favourite of their recordings seem a little dubious as a result.

Not that it’s without merit. Boasting a fine sax solo and even some soft synths, the Doobie Brothers-esque yacht-rock of “(Want You) Back in My Life Again” proves that Richard wasn’t entirely averse to moving with the times. Likewise, the sensual lead single “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” that could also easily have escaped from Karen’s more contemporary-sounding LP (which finally saw the light of day in 1996).

Of course, the public’s general apathy towards the record proved to be the least of The Carpenters’ problems. Karen would soon split with new husband Thomas Burris, the real estate developer she dedicated closing number “Because We Are in Love (The Wedding Song)” to, amidst claims of psychological and financial abuse. By this point, the star was also receiving intravenous therapy in New York’s Lenox Hill after years of misusing medication to lose weight.

"The singer even told Dionne Warwick she still had a lot of living left to do"

In fact, it was only on the promotional trail for Made in America that Karen recognised she had an eating disorder. Sadly, the treatment she received from psychotherapist Steven Levenkron and in hospital tragically couldn’t reverse the toll that her body had taken and in February 1983, one of the most immaculate voices in pop history passed away from heart failure. She was aged just 32.

What makes her loss all the more affecting is that Karen appeared to be heading in the right direction. She’d maintained the weight she left Lenox Hill at, seemed eager to record and tour new music and was on the verge of signing her divorce papers. During her final public appearance at a Grammy Awards celebration, the singer even told Dionne Warwick she still had a “lot of living left to do.”

Of course, Richard would go on to extend The Carpenters’ legacy with several albums cribbed from previously unreleased outtakes. But while undoubtedly failing to show either party at their best, it’s the last to be released in Karen’s lifetime that’s widely considered the duo’s true epilogue.

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