Review Summary: No, this is not the album with "Cat's in the Cradle"
If you stop and think about it, music has come a long way. If you were to take your dearest-held album and try to present it to someone centuries before you, you’d get quite a few head scratches. Putting aside the initial shock value of that pounding electric guitar or heretic use of curse words, they’d probably have a hard time understanding what you truly “get” out of that album. That is because music didn’t initially start out as the 40 minute stim-packs we listen to today. No, music was something much more theatric, much more involving then its modern day counter-part. It was used to gather the crowds, to pass the stories and tales down the generations with magic unattainable by spoken words. Often times these stories became stuff of legend, far surpassing the lost name of its composer. Music was something out of a fairy tale.
70’s folk singer Harry Chapin clearly had an interest in this chapter of our anthropology. Most know him for his hit single “Cat’s in the Cradle”, with its unsettlingly relatable lyrics about a father and son relationship. Yet this man was more than a one-hit wonder, despite receiving almost all his fame and money from one song. He was something seldom seen in the modern day music industry: a story teller. This doesn’t mean his albums are over the top and pretentious concept albums like the ones that seemed to pop up from every band in his era. Instead Portrait Gallery
is a fine example of what his albums actually are like. These ten songs are a collection of individual stories you’d expect from that of a street performer or traveler. That’s because Chapin strums his acoustic guitar and sings heartwarming tales as if he were performing in front of a wide-eyed audience of children.
The album opens with his merry whistling on “Dreams Go By”. Although coming off as a feel-good tune, the lyrics instill a bitter sweet tale about a loving couple who would share each other’s dreams. However as they grow older they realize their years have flown by, and that they are now waiting for their grandchildren to tell them about the dreams of their own. There is a feeling too powerful behind the way Chapin croons these verses; something magical and awfully real. That’s because he has boiled down folk music to its purest. His music isn’t built around his guitar playing, its ebb and flow or even its complexity. It’s built off its passionate stories that he masterfully captures into song. Each comes with a respective nursery rhyme that gives off a curious message about love, tragedy, hope, loss or any theme one might expect from a typical short-story.
A strength of the album is its simplicity. The songs are never too intricate to care for by typically following verse-chorus-verse format. Unlike a lot of story driven music, it’s all too easy to keep up with the plot of the songs. He clearly invites you to follow along while you enjoy a catchy melody with a warm and sincere voice. “Bummer” is an epic about a forgotten inner city street thug who eventually earns the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Although the closest thing on the album you could call pretentious, it is suspenseful journey following a kid who was “weed-speed pushin’ at fifteen” loose his sanity over the years after only gaining recognition through his horrifying acts in the war. His ultimate death is eerie in that it leaves its reasoning up to the listener and would depend on how you view the protagonist.
“The Rock” is arguably the strongest song on the album, as a “chicken little” story of a boy who has a revelation of the destruction of his small town. He tries to warn his teacher, the police, and even his own mother of the dangerous boulder that rests high up on the ledge but is shamefully laughed at. Being alone in his attempts to stop the impending landslide, he desperately sacrifices himself to keep the rock from falling. As he passes away he is remembered only for his insanity despite having actually saved the entire town. These thought-provoking lyrics are just an example of Chapin’s ability to paint entire worlds of imagery and create a handful of interestingly relatable characters along the way.
Harry Chapin is a masterful story teller, using music as his medium to get his tales across. However while these folk tunes are great to sing along to, the music behind them is undeniably weak and at some points almost laughable. This is surely an album I’d never listen to when craving an actual music fix or wanting to enjoy something in the background. This man’s art form was completely different then the music acts of his time but is clearly out performed by a lot of them. The result of this unfortunate truth was a lost artist; one who never truly received the recognition he deserved. Were it not for his love at what he does and his ability to craft classic stories a la mother goose, his songs would have disappeared with him. Perhaps he knew this all along, and his stories were written with the hopes to be forever immortalized for what they stood for.