Few people can be unfamiliar with Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album, released all the way back in 1988. With songs such as Fast Car and Talkin’ About A Revolution, she managed the rare feat of being both political and passionate, both earnest and enjoyable. With her strong, compelling voice added into things, its appeal was immense, its legacy considerable. Sixteen years on and it still stands up, will continue to do so – it’s a true classic.
And, as such, it’s been difficult for Chapman to match. Her subsequent albums have had their moments, her impeccable musicianship remains, but with such high standards to meet she hasn’t produced a work as consistently brilliant. That’s not to downgrade what came later; 2002’s Let It Rain was particularly strong. Upbeat in places, drawing on elements of the blues and Gospel; the bulk of the songs concerning affairs of the heart.
Her latest album is musically a more understated creation; Where You Live sees Chapman engaging once more with the issues that move her. Issues of class and wealth; issues of faith and love. Her voice is gentler than it once was – there’s an occasional trembling quality to it now – but that somehow compliments her approach on this new collection of songs.
Change, the opening track, starts out by asking questions – just what would it take to make you rethink your ways, but it’s more contemplative than polemical in tone. 3,000 Miles deals delicately with the harsh realities of poverty in urban America. Never Yours subverts the love song with ideas of control and possession: “I’ve been a lot of things, but never yours.” (And with lyrics like “say I’m a saint of mercy, say I’m a whore” I would like to have seen Boyzone attempt a cover version as they once did with Baby Can I Hold You Tonight).
If that all sounds a little grim then I’m not doing her justice. Chapman is an eloquent lyricist with a strong social conscience, but she’s also a superb songwriter and musician and Where You Live contains several instances of low key beauty. The most striking of these is Don’t Dwell, a strangely delicate love song; spare yet haunting and deeply atmospheric, quite unlike anything she’s done before.
With an insistent baseline provided by Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers America is the most overtly political track on the album. Chapman sings about race and power in the US with justifiable anger and a to-the-point attitude: you “made us soldiers and junkies, prisoners and slaves, while you were conquering America.” Her message is stark and arresting, made even more relevant by the recent appalling events in New Orleans.
Chapman has a rare integrity and as a result her songs seldom feel overly worthy though, in lesser hands, it’s easy to see how they could. Where You Live is not in the same league as her debut – but then few things are; it’s nonetheless a powerful album from an artist who has stuck faithfully to her own path over the years.