Tracy Chapman --- Tracy Chapman --- 1988 (Elektra)
It's seldom that a debut album will receive seven
Grammy nominations, three of which it actually wins, but that's how good Tracy Chapman's self-titled debut was when it was released. A real breath of fresh air, it's almost like Robert Cray got a sex change! The music is powerful and has a lot to say, the guitar work flawless, and the whole thing rather understated, despite the fanfare. Rather surprising in a way then that although she has since released another seven albums, Tracy has somewhat faded from the glare of the music spotlight, perhaps by choice. She has certainly been heavily involved with charities and social causes, and has built up a solid following of loyal fans, but the huge commercial success that the first single garnered for her has not been repeated.
Most of the album is quite sparse and low-key, and opener “Talkin' 'bout a revolution” is no exception. With acoustic guitar joined by organ, the song looks to the day when ”Poor people gonna rise up/ And take what's theirs”
, and in some ways we've seen that recently --- over twenty-five years later, admittedly --- in the popular uprisings across the Middle East, as well as the Ninety-nine percent movement in the US. We're still a long way from world revolution though. It's a boppy enough opening, but with a serious message, like the next track, the hit single “Fast car”, carried on mostly single guitar and bass, the story of one woman trying to get out of the rut her life is in. It's a song about the problems many suffer: poverty, homelessness, unemployment and responsibility for others as she sings ”My old man's got a problem/ Lives with the bottle …/ Someone had to take care of him/ So I quit school and that's what I did.”
Despite the dreams and plans the woman has, she knows things will never change, and in the end she's forced to tell her boyfriend to sling his hook: ”Take your fast car/ And keep on drivin'.”
“Across the lines” is another tale of trying to break out and make something of your life, rise above your social status, with a strong anti-apartheid message in the lyric: ”Across the lines/ Who would dare to go/ Under the bridge/ Over the tracks/ That separates whites from blacks?”
A triumph of acapella singing, “Behind the wall” is under two minutes of domestic violence which ends in tragedy, decrying the inaction of the police and the result of such refusal to get involved in a domestic dispute.
Sadly, just about everyone knows the next track due to its being covered by Boyzone, but that doesn't stop “Baby can I hold you” from being a classic love song. With lovely acoustic guitar and lonely keyboards in the background, it's fragile, tense, frustrated and yearning, a sincere wish to heal the wounds, any way possible. Like just about every track on this album it's short, just over three minutes, and indeed there are only two tracks on the whole album that exceed the four-minute mark. Chapman does not need long, meandering, complicated songs to make her point and get her message across: every track is short, concise and hits the right note in exactly the right way.
“Mountains o' things” is very Caribbean influenced, dulcimer and kettle-drum-like percussion giving the whole thing a relaxed, lazy feel, bongos tapping out the rhythm as if the whole thing was recorded on some island paradise somewhere. I have to say, though, it's my least favourite track on the album, just does really nothing for me. Not mad about “She's got her ticket” either, a reggae styled track I feel is more filler than anything else, but things settle down again with “Why”, which asks the questions we all want answers to, backed by electric guitar and wailing keyboards: ”Why do babies starve/ When there's enough food to feed the world/ Why when there's so many of us/ Are there people still alone/ Why are the missiles called Peacekeepers/ When they're aimed to kill?”
“For my lover” is a country/folk-styled ballad, and then comes one of the other standouts on the album, “If not now...”, a tender, piano-driven semi-ballad, almost in Al Stewart territory, where Tracy declares sharply ”If not today/ Why give your promises?/ A love declared for days to come/ Is as good as none.”
The album ends on the brittle “For you”, a very low-key and somewhat muddy ending to an album which, while not perfect and which has its flaws, is still an impressive debut.
1. Talkin' 'bout a revolution
2. Fast car
3. Across the lines
4. Behind the wall
5. Baby can I hold you
6. Mountains o' things
7. She's got her ticket
9. For my lover
10. If not now...
11. For you