Listen to this track by supremely gifted American pop song artisan and singer-songwriter in her own right Carole King. It’s “It’s Too Late”, a smash single coupled with another song, “I Feel The Earth Move”, as a double A-side, and featured on her classic 1971 record Tapestry. The song was co-written with lyricist Toni Stern, who penned the words after a break-up with a mutual friend of King’s, fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Carole King herself had written for many other artists from Bobby Vee, to The Chiffons, to The Monkees, a role that took up quite a bit of her time from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s after only a few solo singles under her own name by the beginning of that decade. By then, she’d evolved considerably as a writer and performer. “It’s Too Late” reflects a more mature perspective on the end of a relationship compared to many of the break-up songs she’d written in the previous decade. It adds a level of musical sophistication too, with jazz-inflected guitar and soprano sax adding additional voices to King’s resigned lead vocal and lush piano lines.
But very importantly, it’s also a key song that comes from a woman’s point of view during a time when certain social changes were only just beginning to make their way into the broader cultural conversation.
The circumstances around which the Tapestry album was created certainly informed its tone. By 1968 after divorcing husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, King moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles. She was on her own, and starting a new chapter for herself not only as an artist, but as a person. It was in L.A. where she became ensconced in the fertile Laurel Canyon scene, during which time she met Stern and Taylor, as well as Joni Mitchell and others. It was out of that scene that her second album, Tapestry, emerged, with “It’s Too Late” being lead single and creating instant success for her as a stalwart radio single. Fun personal fact: it is among the first songs I ever remember hearing, flowing out of my parents’ seemingly ceaseless AM radio around our apartment when I was a toddler. It was an anthem to an era, and for more than just being so catchy (which it is). By many metrics, it’s a powerful statement.
Part of what makes this true is King’s down-to-earth vocal delivery, with a distinct nasal quality that would make her instantly recognizable as a singer, with something very believable at its root. This helped to mark the times, too, with vocalists during this period no longer being valued just for their technical prowess, but rather for their ability to create an artistic voice with which listeners could personally identify. King’s voice is much easier to believe for what she’s singing about than it is to simply admire for its tonal quality or musical precision. This of course made material like “It’s Too Late” to be an exact match to her considerable talents as a vocalist and a melodist. King’s performance makes it pretty easy for listeners to identify with the drama.
In “It’s Too Late”, a woman finds herself deciding that things between her lover and herself have reached an impasse, through the fault of no one. It’s a sad thing but it must be faced like adults; it’s too late to save their relationship. It’s time to say goodbye. This further marks the times. The woman in this song reasonably and honestly decides to take a direction away from a relationship rather than bemoaning her lot in one that makes her unhappy. This is not a woman waiting for her life to happen to her because she has no other option. Rather, she’s taking control and making a decision she feels is best for her, even though it’s painful. This is socially significant, and is a striking contrast to the kinds of stories told in pop songs before this song was released. It’s not populated with heroes and villains, or straitjacketed by traditional morality around gender roles. It reflects the reality of being in a modern relationship instead, fraught with conflicting emotions and grey areas. It’s both sad and liberating at the same time. It’s complex, and true.
The sentiments in this song came out of an era when a certain brand of feminism was only just emerging, changing the narrative for many women and revealing whole sets of options that weren’t available to them even a decade before. This is a break-up song for grown-ups in a new social era when starting a new life and being successful on one’s own was not just something men were able to do. It was the age of Mary Richards! “It’s Too Late” traces the emotional development of an audience. These are people who had grown up with the many songs that Carole King had written for other artists in the sixties that are so full of starry-eyed innocence. By the next decade, her music was marked by a quality that was perhaps unexpected in light of her earlier work; that of worldly wisdom, personal liberation, and the sometimes burdensome gift of experience.
After decades of chart success as a writer and performer and even an actor, Carole King also currently spends her time championing environmental issues and wilderness preservation.
You can learn more about her at caroleking.com.