Album of the Week, April 16: Voyeur by Kim Carnes

CarnesSanityVoyeurKim Carnes took her time building her star status. The daughter of an attorney and a hospital administrator, she is that rare pop musician who grew up in a non-musical household. She always knew she wanted to be a singer and songwriter, however, and found other connections, like her childhood neighbor and lifelong friend, multi-instrumentalist David Lindley. In her early 20s she spent some time in the New Christy Minstrels where she met her husband, Dave Ellingson, and another musical pal, Kenny Rogers. After a stint writing for others and recording demos, she started recording her own albums. Her breakthrough came in 1980, when Rogers had Carnes and Ellingson write the songs for his concept album Gideon — including the #4 pop hit Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer, a Rogers/Carnes duet. She followed that with a Top 10 remake of Smokey Robinson’s More Love from her fifth album, a more dance-oriented track than her previous folky pop. As she assembled the material for her next disc, Mistaken Identity, she decided to cover a couple of songs written by Jackie DeShannon and Donna Weiss. One of those, Bette Davis Eyes, became a monster hit, spending nine weeks at #1 in a long chart run and becoming the second-biggest song of the 80s. Putting together the follow-up was a daunting task, but Carnes, Ellingson, and producer Val Garay managed to craft the finest album of her long career.

Title Voyeur
Act Kim Carnes
Label EMI Release Date September 1982
Producer Val Garay
U.S. Chart  #49 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Voyeur [#29]
  2. Looker
  3. Say You Don’t Know Me
  4. Does It Make You Remember? [#36]
  5. Breaking Away From Sanity
  6. Undertow
  7. Merc Man
  8. The Arrangement
  9. Thrill of the Grill
  10. Take It On the Chin

The 10 songs on Voyeur look at obsession and disappointment from a variety of angles, tied together with a smart, dark pop-dance style. The title track should have been a worthy chart successor to Bette Davis Eyes. Brooding and energetic at once, it alternates descriptions of the viewer and the viewee in a complicated relationship with no real contact. It’s a wonderful look at alienation and desire — and you can dance to it. Looker picks up the theme of beauty as an end in itself as well as the price that comes with it. The tracks make a smart pair and a strong start.

Say You Don’t Know Me is a creepy song of isolation and separation, a noirish tale with grim musical effects. Carnes smartly pivots to a different kind of separation with Does It Make You Remember?, an exploration of nostalgia and sorrow. It shows off her ability to deliver a heartfelt ballad while retaining the musical flavor of the album. Breaking Away From Sanity wraps up side one nicely, wistfully exploring the themes of the disc with fragile fatalism.

Undertow opens side two with swirling menace and a sinuous groove. Carnes and company then take a humorous turn with the swaggering tale of the Merc Man, an ordinary fellow given confidence by his powerful car. Things get darker again with The Arrangement, the story of a marriage whose foundations have long crumbled but whose habits linger on. It’s a smart bit of sequencing, the jarring nature of which is well suited to the album. Thrill of the Grill is another fun moment, an almost throwaway song about grabbing happiness — however fleeting — where you can find it. Carnes closes the album with one of its strongest moments, the sly kiss-off of Take It On the Chin. With its teasing vocal and light instrumentation, it almost sounds inviting, until it’s clear that the singer is quite done with her paramour.

Mistaken Identity was a hard commercial act to follow, with four weeks at #1 (largely thanks to the monster single), and Voyeur didn’t come close to that level, despite a couple of solid Top 40 hits. It’s a more satisfying listen, however, and benefits from more original compositions, solid sequencing, and a clear musical and thematic tone. In her long, quirky career, Kim Carnes has offered up many musical delights. This album is the highlight.

FURTHER LISTENING: Carnes’ first four albums are all decent folky pop with a few standout songs. Romance Dance — featuring More Love — is far more interesting but much less consistent. The same could be said of Mistaken Identity, which benefits from one magnificent song but is otherwise spotty. After Voyeur, Carnes released two solid albums — Café Racers and Barking At Airplanes — that rival her best disc for consistency but lack similar strongest moments. Since then she’s recorded sporadically, continuing to turn out interesting discs. The compilation Gypsy Honeymoon includes most of her hits but largely overlooks Voyeur, making the pair a solid way to enjoy her career.

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