Album of the Week, May 11: Tracy Chapman

tracy_chapmanIn an age of power ballads and video-driven pop, Tracy Chapman’s debut album didn’t seem likely to make much of an impression. By turns confessional, angry, personal, and political, the disc is a potent mix of singer-songwriter protest music and aching pop love songs. Somehow this timeless, authentic masterpiece found its audience in the waning days of Reagan’s America.

Tracy Chapman was born in Cleveland, OH in 1964 and learned to play the ukulele at the tender age of three. She attended Tufts University (eventually graduating with a BA in anthropology and African studies), busking and playing guitar in the many Boston-area folk venues. A fellow student — who happened to be the son of record mogul Charles Koppleman — passed Chapman’s demos along, securing her a deal with Elektra records. Superstar producer David Kershenbaum was looking for an acoustic project and agreed to helm Chapman’s debut disc. The result was a multi-platinum Grammy-winner that both summed up its time and was powerfully timeless.

Title Tracy Chapman
Act Tracy Chapman
Label Elektra Release Date April 15, 1988
Producer David Kershenbaum
U.S. Chart  1 U.K. Chart  1
[US Hot 100]
  1. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution [#75]
  2. Fast Car [#6]
  3. Across the Lines
  4. Behind the Wall
  5. Baby Can I Hold You [#48]
  6. Mountains O’ Things
  7. She’s Got Her Ticket
  8. Why?
  9. For My Lover
  10. If Not Now…
  11. For You

Elektra wisely decided to let Chapman’s work speak for itself, giving her a solid launch but no glitzy promotion. Her beautiful voice, piercing insights, and strong social conscience were allowed to take center stage, with Kershenbaum providing guidance but not overwhelming the new artist with his experience. He assembled the crack team of Larry Klein and Denny Fongheiser to provide rhythm behind Chapman’s guitar and vocals, adding other sympathetic talents as the songs demanded. The result is clean and crisp but never sterile.

Things kick off with one of the finest protest songs written after the civil rights era. Talkin’ Bout A Revolution is the perfect mix of anger and hope, both demanding and encouraging change. It sets the tone for the album perfectly, showing off Chapman’s musical power and clearly laying out her agenda for social justice. Fast Car, her amazing first single, ups the ante by using an agonizing story to illustrate the need for that revolution. It’s a sadly beautiful song about the way hope gets crushed by reality and the oppressive forces that cause people to act outside their best interests, aching for something just a little better.

Across the Lines is a stark look at ghettoization and racial tension. It could have been written for the Rodney King riots, if it hadn’t been written four years before they even happened. Behind the Wall is a potent a cappella look at domestic violence, weaving in the ugly societal factors that perpetuate the cycle. It’s one of Chapman’s finest vocals, starkly telling a second-hand story with deep personal feeling. Things get more personal with the lovely Baby Can I Hold You, an aching love song. After four powerful songs of social justice, anger, and sorrow, this plea for personal connection is especially powerful, a great example of careful track sequencing.

Mountains O’ Things shows off Chapman’s sense of humor and irony, with a bitter look at the mixed messages of consumer culture. Starting with the dreams of someone clearly low on the economic ladder, she slaps down that yearning with a scathing reminder that materialism is built on the backs of the poor. The song features the rare but clever use of keyboards, creating a dreamlike feel that helps the two threads weave together effectively. She’s Got Her Ticket takes the dream one step further, with its protagonist deciding to literally flee the cycle. Musically, it may be the weakest point on the album, coming off a bit slick, but lyrically it fits perfectly, continuing the narrative the Chapman and Kershenbaum so carefully wove.

Why? brings us back to the more universal level with another angry look at the state of the nation. Chapman sings with lovely, righteous anger, pondering all the ways the Land of the Free abuses its power and ignores the suffering. With a nice twist, For My Lover returns to the darkly personal. Fundamentally the story of a broken couple, it also nicely skewers the inequities of the so-called justice system. Chapman sings with an urgency unusual for her more personal songs, bridging her intimate and universal themes nicely.

If Not Now… continues that pattern, pondering the value of a dream deferred. On its surface, this is a more personal song, but it works perfectly in the larger political framework as well. This track, together with Talkin’ Bout A Revolution and Why? form a triad of brilliant socially conscious folk that hearkens back nearly thirty years, reclaiming an much-needed art form that had grown sadly quiet. The album ends with the earnest, yearning For You, a lovely song of need that shows off the depth of Chapman’s talent and voice.

Tracy Chapman made it to the top of the album charts and featured a surprising Top 10 single. It was nominated for seven Grammies, winning two. Tracy Chapman announced herself as a powerful musical force and reminded listeners that music with a conscience was still worthwhile. Justifiably included on many best-of lists, Tracy Chapman is a significant work that brilliantly frames the issues of its time but remains fresh and relevant 25 years later.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

2 Responses to Album of the Week, May 11: Tracy Chapman

  1. 5thtop says:

    Up there with the best, and a favourite of mine since it’s release. Her first three albums are astonishing. Made me want to revisit them; thanks!

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