Happy 30th Anniversary to Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album Tracy Chapman, originally released April 5, 1988.
In an era of highly polished and overly calculated pop, Tracy Chapman blew into the musical landscape as a breath of fresh air with an unexpected hit of an album. Arriving with little forewarning or hype, her debut single “Fast Car” zagged against the overproduced music of the time with simpler, stripped-back acoustic arrangements that placed her unique voice and message front and center.
A natural storyteller with great insight for what was going on around her socially, Chapman crafts beautiful and eloquent music with lyrics that connect to the humanity in us all. As a song about escaping one’s lot in life and dreaming for a fresh start, “Fast Car” offered a laid back alternative to the hair rock of the period that was fueled by testosterone and bluster. Here, instead, was a simple, folksy arrangement imbued with frailty and honesty and a longing for more.
The way Chapman’s voice creaks and breaks with nearly every syllable of the verse makes her telling of life heart-wrenching without overplaying the sentiment. So when she arrives at the chorus and sings, “I had a feeling that I belonged / I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone” with a sense of power and conviction, you’ve already signed up for the journey. And whilst she offers no clear-cut answer and leaves the narrative of “Fast Car” open-ended, that’s part of its appeal. There’s realness in the uncertainty of life at play here, the push and pull of desire and reality that can leave the song feeling at once optimistic and dour.
If “Fast Car” was her take on the minutiae of our daily lives, album opener “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” painted with broader, more socially conscious strokes. And with a title like that, how could it not?
Hitting with brewing defiance “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” threatens the privilege of the status quo as she sings, “Poor people gonna rise up and take their share / Poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs” and later “Finally, the tables are starting to turn.” It’s fitting that she sings “Don’t you know / They’re talkin’ ‘bout a revolution / and it sounds like a whisper” with a quiet confidence that a popular uprising is looming in the unvoiced frustrations of the everyday person. This is a folk master class in narrative, arrangement and production and remains an album highlight.
Elsewhere on the album, Chapman’s social-consciousness hones in on the racial divide in America with “Across the Lines,” as she recounts a tale of racial attacks and the ensuing fallout and mourns, “On the back streets of America / They kill the dream of America.”
Similarly with the soulful a capella of “Behind the Wall,” Chapman laments the cycle of domestic violence and the inaction of the police to “interfere with domestic affairs between a man and his wife.” It’s sobering stuff, made even more powerful by having only Chapman’s vocals carry the song as the sole voice calling out in the dark, shedding light on a broken system and the helplessness of victims.
Chapman’s observations aren’t just focused on the world outside her door and some of the album’s most touching moments come through the intimate reflections on personal relationships. Songs like the beautiful “Baby Can I Hold You,” which touches on the simple things needed to sustain a relationship and “For My Lover,” which reflects on the themes of forbidden love through the guise of an interracial and/or same sex relationship — both equally vilified in the America of its era — carry an honest sweetness to them that makes them immediately intriguing.
Further songs of escape such as the reggae tinged “She’s Got Her Ticket” and songs of the heart “If Not Now…” and “For You” flesh out the album giving it a well-rounded feel and make for a highly rewarding listen.
For me, the two standouts of the album remain the glorious “Mountains O’ Things” which sets a misguided longing for material things to compensate for the lacking of wholeness against a hypnotic percussive groove, and the rockier “Why?” which tackles the illogical excesses and contradictions of our existence. Both tracks show that Chapman can still deliver a powerful message against upbeats and a fuller sound, whilst still holding onto her integrity as an artist.
Over the course of the surprisingly short running time of 36 minutes, Chapman paints a picture of longing for more whether it is in the plight of the populace or the intimacy of relationships. Through her eleven songs she delivers a focused set of musical offerings that remain refreshing, and sadly contemporary, 30 years after its release. Without offering definite answers, Chapman leaves the questions of her songs open for further discussion, making the lyrical narrative more powerful for this restraint. 30 years on. the songs still resonate. Her voice drips with natural emotion that hooks you in and engages both mind and heart in ways that can be all too lacking in music’s more current offerings.