By Neil Strauss, New York Times, December 04, 1995
In one song Tracy Chapman performed during her sold-out show on Thursday night, she sang the mantra of the optimist, “Heaven’s Here on Earth.” Yet soon after, she was singing about domestic violence, starving children and bigotry. How is it possible for her to reconcile these two worlds? By inserting a lot of ifs and could-be’s into “Heaven’s Here on Earth” is how.
The fundamental assumption driving Ms. Chapman’s folk-rock, whether she’s tackling social issues or relationships, is that most people (particularly her audience) have a good conscience but are living in a world run by those who have learned to negate theirs. She drew the battle lines clearly when she rose from the campus coffeehouse circuit in 1988 with class-cognizant hits like “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”; since then her album sales (and her songwriting talents) have dwindled even as her core audience has grown more passionate about her music and her message: that listeners express themselves to be at peace with their conscience.
What is distinctive about Ms. Chapman, however, is not her songwriting or political thought, but her voice. On Thursday, she sang 22 songs in a resonant, measured alto, dismissing her five-piece band for a cappella versions of “Amazing Grace” and “Behind the Wall.” Her music was designed for maximum emotional effect, full of minor-key melodies — usually played by Ms. Chapman on guitar with a touch as confident and deliberate as her singing. It’s a technique that works much better on Ms. Chapman’s recent “New Beginnings” (Elektra), when she is singing love songs, than when she is delivering student-newspaper editorials like “The Rape of the World.” NEIL STRAUSS