Review Summary: Simple yet utterly effective and hard-hitting, Tracy Chapman's eponymous debut is a socially-conscious effort that evokes the political zeitgeist of 1970s America but remains relevant even today.
Upon first listening to Tracy Chapman's seminal, eponymous debut, one can perhaps be a little too quick to speculate upon its influences. Whilst it is undeniable that the record is a shining example of classic contemporary (excuse the oxymoron) folk- and is indeed deservedly held in such high regard- classifying this as simply a folk album would be selling Chapman, her background and her resultant musical efforts woefully short. There is no doubt that the socio-politically charged lyrics are reminiscent of the heyday of revered legends such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, one should take into account of Tracy Chapman's upbringing; while the aforementioned artists were making their waves, Chapman was growing up in a working-class African-American neighbourhood, nigh unreachable by white folk artists despite the sympathetic lyrical content of their works. Despite the thematic similarities, closer examination of the music, particularly that of her 1988 debut, reveals more in common with country, 70's R&B and soul.
The album kicks off with the famous, energetic number 'Talkin' Bout a Revolution'
, which begins with a simple but catchy acoustic guitar rhythm and Chapman's idiosyncratic, husky crooning, with percussion being gradually added as the song builds momentum. The lyrics are powerful and evocative, conjuring images of the proletariat on their welfare lines, with “whispers” of rising up. Indeed, the song is a typical but wonderful example of Chapman's talent for creating thought-provoking yet uncomplicated songs, a style of 'depth through simplicity', if you will. Though it would be famously covered by Living Color, Chapman's version remains a signature song both for her and in the mindset of the lower social classes. Indeed, despite being a definitive contemporary folk number, one can hear influences of the more socially-conscious works of Stevie Wonder and James Brown rather than Dylan.
Another highlight of the album is the second track, which almost anyone who listens to music outside of the pop charts should know. 'Fast Car'
is a more sombre cut, telling the story of a young woman who wishes to break free from her troubled life, having dropped out of school to look after her ailing father abandoned by his wife for his drinking and unemployment, wanting “more from life than he could give”. The narrator describes her life in stages through each gentle verse over the distinctive guitar melody, leaving with her partner in his titular car hoping for a better life but finding herself stuck in the same rut, all the while harkening back in the more uplifting refrains to the excitement and hope she had felt when driving in her man's fast car. Whilst a hit single, the song is also aware of similar stories that befell many a young person in hard times, leaving a bitter aftertaste when one realizes that sometimes they just can't escape.
Other tracks that convey the consciousness of the societal-challenged include the brief yet memorably haunting a capella 'Behind The Wall'
, describing the social injustices of her brethren, 'Across The Lines'
which explicitly details acts of violence against citizens considered second-class and how they are ignored in favour of the lesser strife of the dominant whites. 'Mountain O' Things'
further explores the disparities between the wealthy and the poverty stricken, all the while keeping in line with her simplistic but methodical approach to songwriting.
However, there are also tracks that delve deeper into Chapman's own personal psyche. The introspective, soulful 'Baby Can I Hold You'
is another famous track off the record, which no amount of covers from forgettable boy bands of the 90s could ever destroy. Similarly, songs like 'For My Lover'
and 'For You'
continue to examine personal feelings of love and the effects it has on life, but also the effects life has on love. This is not an album split thematically down the middle, with one half being socio-politcal and the other a collection of love ballads, but rather they are interwoven beautifully and memorably, resonating deeply with any listener who can form any sort of connection to the soulful and at times mournful lyrics.
It would be doing the album an immense disservice to simply call it folk and consign it to the ages as such. Indeed, many of the tracks are relevant to society even today, especially when one casts thoughts to the dreadful conflict in Gaza, but also to the world as a whole, still in various stages of recovery from the worst economic downturn in many decades. Chapman's insistence of maintaining the integrity of her songs as she originally intended has led to her first album becoming a truly timeless work. Sure, the simplistic approach to each song won't sit well with everyone but it is through the simplicity that Chapman effectively conveys her message. With her range of influences outside of the obvious, Chapman was able to make the work of a single black woman from Cleveland relevant to a myriad peoples the world over, evidenced by the massive sales of the record. At a time when popular music was saturated with cheesy synthesizer lines over electronic dance beats and generic party lyrics, Chapman's effort and success is made all the more commendable.