Tracy Chapman – Debut Album (1988) Track by Track Review
Considering just how vapid and empty so much of the popular music produced during the eighties actually was, Tracy Chapman’s eponymous album from 1988 is something of a revelation. Utterly timeless in its production, it captured, over the course of its eleven tracks, Chapman’s deep sympathy for the poor and her empathy for those less fortunate than herself. It is a socially conscious and fastidiously aware record that cuts across racial lines to confront its listeners with portraits of poverty, abuse, and victimisation. Just as the hair metal movement reached its zenith on the pop charts, capturing the wanton and celebrated excesses of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s world, Chapman’s album, stripped of the characteristic production techniques that so often mar music from this period, arrived to present a sensitive artistic portrayal of America’s underbelly; its hopes, dreams, fears, and nightmares.
The opening track, the electrifying ‘Talkin’ bout a Revolution’, is one of the best protest songs of the era, capturing, as it did, the uncertainty of the time in which it was produced. Considering the positive way in which the era of Reagan and Thatcher is remembered, by some commentators at least, that is an importance achievement, an enduring counterpoint to a still-emerging narrative that would otherwise strip the period of its depth and hypocrisy. The song was, and remains, a potent call to action, the sort that would almost certainly be branded ‘socialist’ by those who do not understand the meaning of that word were it to be released today. It was a direct message to those who had never had it so good from those who had never experienced true prosperity, a reminder of the fragile social contract that bound (and binds) our society together. Of course, this is a track that must be experienced in context for its actual contours and limits to be appreciated. It is appropriate, then, that the record’s best known song, ‘Fast Car’, is the piece which follows up the album’s galvanising opener, presenting in its understated way the dream of escape that so often defines life below the poverty line. The album’s cry for revolution is short lived, a brief moment of righteous fury framed by much longer reflections on the daily grind – the cry of anger is followed by the much more involved task of coping with hardship.
Class is one of the album’s foundational themes but race is not entirely absent. ‘Across the Line’, the album’s third track, is an on-the-nose reflection upon racial division in the United States which chastened those who judged without empathy or understanding. Its lyrics touch on gender, another important theme at the heart of this album which ‘Behind the Wall’, the record’s fourth track, brings to the fore. That song is an a cappella wail of pain that deals directly with domestic abuse and the ineffective role of the police in containing such horrors. It might well be enough to make certain listeners despair; why, one might ask, would anyone allow themselves to become the type of victim Chapman depicts? The answer, surprisingly, comes in the record’s most sentimental (and fifth) track, ‘Baby Can I Hold You’. Barely have Chapman’s pained and naked vocals from the previous song faded than the acoustic guitar returns, accompanying soothing words about love and, tellingly, the power of the apology. Taken by itself it is a pleasant enough, if unremarkable, ballad. Taken in the context of what came before, however, and it becomes something else, not a love song but a trip behind track four’s proverbial wall. It is shocking and touching in equal measures.
In ‘Mountains O’ Things’, the album’s halfway point, the bald consumerism of the eighties is attacked, another reference to the inequity of society, whilst in the reggae-infused ‘She’s Got a Ticket’ Chapman combines the dreamy hope of escape found in ‘Fast Car’ with the sharp gendered sensibilities of ‘Behind the Wall’. If the first half of the album was about exploring themes in a more or less separate and distinct way, the second half makes them collide, bringing them into conflict to create a complicated, overlapping synthesis of what went before. ‘Why’ is the song that perfectly captures that growing cacophony of despair, throwing the hypocrisy and contradictions of the world at the album’s listener, crossing class concerns with those of gender, isolation, and conflict. Musically speaking, it is probably the most aggressive track, other than the instrument-less ‘Behind the Wall’, on the album – and with good reason. It brings all that came before it into sharp focus.
Following on from that crescendo ‘For My Lover’, a comparatively narrow track that focuses upon only one part of Chapman’s societal critique, feels like a backwards step. When it is considered in the context of ‘Behind the Wall’ and ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, however, its depth is revealed. It is the third part in a lyrical trilogy which benefits from the space which exists between it and the first two parts of the sequence. The separation gives the song an opportunity to breath, the delayed reprise of the theme (exploitation at the hands of one’s lover) reminding listeners that this issue always remains, even if it is not always visible. Just as the album’s scope reaches its broadest point with ‘Why’, ‘ For My Lover’ brings its listeners back to the ground floor, making them focus on the individual by thwarting any attempt to escape into the abstract sphere of the collective. In a similar way ‘If Not Now’ encores an earlier sentiment, this time lamenting the promise of the album’s opening track. Not without pace or impetus of its own, the track dwells, in haunting acoustic breakdowns, upon the implied question raised in ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ – when? Taken as bookends, the two tracks are incredibly effective.
The final track, ‘For You’ (like ‘A Day in the Life’ from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) is a postscript, a haunting finale that hints at prior themes whilst leaving a final poignant sentiment to hang in the air. It is a final reminder that if people sometimes talk about revolution they spend the vast majority of their time dealing with feelings and ideas that are significantly more universal. Like much of this album, ‘For You’ is a reflection on the importance of those hopes which infuse poverty with tolerability and the importance of those relationships which seem to, even if they don’t actually, promise relief from the worst aspects of life. It is an idea which, like the rest of the album, is absolutely timeless. Yet this is also an album that is deeply rooted in the time in which it was created, a counterpoint to the vast body of meaningless pop music that proliferated during the era of MTV. It is simultaneously a document of the past and commentary upon the issues of today, a relic of a by-gone era and an enduring critique of a society which has changed but has not yet moved on. Few albums from that period can make such a boast.