When Touch the Sky debuted in 1979, it didn’t crack Billboard’s Top 100. This was quite a comedown for an artist whose Tapestry (1971) had helped define the era of the singer/songwriter. Some reviews have suggested that genre had simply come and gone to be replaced by the rising tide of disco, punk, and new wave. But these notions don’t account for the ongoing success of the likes of James Taylor, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, or Bob Dylan. Being out of step wasn’t and isn’t enough to explain the album’s failure.
For whatever reason, Touch the Sky was never before released on CD, so now it’s possible to hear the album anew and consider how it holds up some 30 years later. At first listen, it certainly seems a product of its time, but more a reflection of what others were doing than cutting any new ground of its own. Recorded in Austin with backing players culled from Jerry Jeff Walker’s band, publicity for the disc suggests the album was King’s foray into the then popular vogue of country/rock. On some tracks, that claim fits well enough. On others, the material seems workmanlike, with King skimming the surface of her capabilities.
The opening song, “Time Gone By,” is one of the best on the set. It’s pure folk/rock, commenting on what was lost after the spirit of the ‘60s had ended. King’s lyrics remember when “peace and hope and dreams were high” before the clouds became dark and selfish ego took hold. Then, King does her level best to become a country girl. Featuring the pedal-steel guitar work of Leo LeBlanc, “Dreamlike I Wander” is a simple honky-tonk cry in your beer moan about a lover who didn’t come home.
The jaunty “Walk With Me” is equally as simplistic, asking you to “walk with me although I may not have a lot to say.” Kicking up the pace a tad, “Good Mountain People” is country/rock about what you’d expect: mountain people know how to have a rocking good time.
Some cuts demonstrate that King is often a better songwriter than performer. The light funk of “Move Lightly,” for example, cooks up a soulful groove that cries out for a more powerhouse voice to deliver the sultry lyrics. Likewise, the beautiful “You Still Want Her,” a slow ballad about a guy still carrying a torch for a lost love, sounds like a perfect demo for the likes of, say, a Rita Coolidge, Judy Collins, or Melissa Manchester. “Crazy,” about doing the same things in the same places, sounds like a performer doing just that, and King’s voice cracks and strains in each chorus.
On the other hand, “Eagle,” a song not surprisingly inspired by a California band named after that bird, is a perfect slice of what the West Coast scene was doing at the time with environmental themes sung in an anthem to freedom. (The song’s closing keyboard coda is a clear homage to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.”) Similarly, “Seeing Red” focuses on Native Americans and uses the color red as a metaphor to link man and Earth. “We’ve got to make it right,” King tells us, again straining her voice past its limits.
There are likely King fans who will enjoy Touch the Sky as, for many, it contains material that they haven’t heard in decades. For others, they may feel they’re not really hearing Carole King but rather a songwriter playing around in a studio workshop exploring genres not really part of her own experience or background. Contemporary country performers might find the set a useful mine for material for their own acts. Call the album an artifact, an experiment, or an opportunity for King completists to fill out their collections. But it’s not likely to reach the Billboard Hot 100 this time around either.