#256: Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman
1988? This was released in 1988???
I can’t be the only person floored by that. These songs were all over the radio when I was a child, approximately fifteen years ago and fifteen years after 1988. But if you listen to it now, it sounds just as contemporary and urgent as any folk record released in 2020. Probably more so.
(I also think she had a bump in public consciousness after that Nicki Minaj debacle in 2018, when Minaj tried to sample Chapman and Chapman said no, which I think is pretty cool, even though I like them both.)
It’s kind of heartening to hear this right after Dylan’s early release The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (#255). One of the most common criticisms hurled at Bob (including by me, sometimes, if I’m feeling mean) is that he’s just an Old White Guy who monopolized the folk music industry for a lot longer than he had any right to. But 25 years after Freewheelin’, Chapman released her debut at age 24, taking up the mantle of pop-folk tradition Dylan put into place. And then she transformed it into something even more radical and melodic than Dylan ever could. (It doesn’t hurt that Chapman’s voice is full and beautiful, while Dylan’s is, um, Dylan-esque.)
“Talkin’ Bout A Revolution” is the album opener, one of the album’s hit singles, and as timely as ever. It was the song that drummed up interest in Chapman in the first place and led to this album, and I mean, of course it did. Don’t you love when she sounds like a whisper? “Across the Lines” is the only song directly addressing racial inequity, and its simple lyrics never feel sugary because she’s questioning you, dear listener: Who would dare to go? You? “Why?” asks similar questions, but it took me a few listens to come around to. When I listened more closely, I felt suddenly moved. The song asks that probably have political answers, but I don’t get the sense she’s asking political questions. She’s asking compassionate ones.
If she goes tit-for-tat with Dylan in political songs, she bests him in love songs. Each one is sweet but tinged with something dark, like a plum. The eternal classic “Fast Car” is one of the most heartbreaking modern ballads ever (and happens to be one of the first songs I learned on the guitar). The song that surprised me by being my favorite was the gutting “For My Lover,” which paints this beautiful picture of a woman who’s jailed and violated for the person she loves (with some definite queer undertones that make some of the lines even more upsetting: Everyday I’m psychoanalyzed/For my lover, for my lover/They dope me up and I tell them lies). “For You” is dark but not sad, soft but not quiet, altogether a nice closer.
Other songs here just offer snippets of everyday life in the world of people who have little agency and no privilege. “Behind the Wall” takes Chapman a cappella as she offers us an ugly tale of the guilt you live with when you live with walls thin enough to hear the abuse next door. “Mountains O’ Things” forces you to sing along even as it makes you consider your soul and the fact that you’ll be working for somebody else until I’m in my grave. (I’m convinced Ed Sheeran stole this backbeat for “Shape of You.”) And “She’s Got Her Ticket” finally gives the record a bit of shiny joy.
Underneath every strum is the thin, strong thread of Chapman’s authenticity, her quiet ability to plainly state things that don’t sound radical but are. In another RS list of the 100 Best Albums of the Eighties, where Tracy Chapman made #10 (So why so low here? But I digress…) her producer David Kershenbaum is quoted saying this:
“This album was made for the right reasons. … There was a set of ideas that we wanted to communicate, and we felt if we were truthful and loyal to those ideas, then people would pick up on the emotion and the lyrical content that was there.”
Kershenbaum & Chapman succeeded: this is one of the bestselling albums ever. And of course it is. It’s dark enough to appeal to dirtbags like me, but pretty enough to appeal to good people like my mom. All while being a trailblazer.
Only Two Songs That Sounded Like The Eighties In A Bad Way: “Baby Can I Hold You” and “If Not Now…” Is it just me or is the piano cheesy?