By Jon Pareles, New York Times, November 30, 1988
Tracy Chapman is wary of her pop stardom. Although her debut album, ”Tracy Chapman,” has sold two million copies, she shrugs off adulation and simply sings her songs. Ms. Chapman writes about racial tension, domestic violence, poverty-line living and the struggle for honest dignity -there’s also an occasional love song – with stark, unpoetic lyrics in bare-bones settings. And her voice, a deep contralto, holds reservoirs of determination and sorrow behind every word. With her unexpected mass popularity, she has become doubly careful not to make a false move.
At Carnegie Hall on Monday, for the first of two sold-out shows, everything about Ms. Chapman bespoke an austere directness. Her songs were slow and sober, set to measured guitar chords or sparse fingerpicking; her stagewear was a sweatshirt and jeans. She spoke to the audience, in two studied monologues to introduce new songs, but barely acknowledged any response,
Ms. Chapman performed most of the songs on her album, as well as half a dozen she has not recorded. Her music is spare, but diverse; while many arrangements recall Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Joan Armatrading, she also dips into reggae and blues, and she knows how to use a syncopated chord or a bent note as shorthand for an entire style. She often writes verses that are modal or (like many blues melodies) pentatonic, which create a sense of unsettled tonality, then resolves them in a major-key chorus. But she’s a long way from any songwriting formula. Her songs create drama as her voice fills the spaces in her guitar parts with warmth and quiet passion.
At Carnegie Hall, the unfamiliar songs detailed sharper messages along with romantic strife. Ms. Chapman spurns the materialism of the 1980’s, and she comes down especially hard on blacks who accept its blandishments. One song declared:
You call it upward mobility But you’ve been sold down the river It’s just another form of slavery In ”Born to Fight,” she defies an unnamed ”they” who want to take away her pride and ”make me into a white man’s drone.”
”All That You Have Is Your Soul,” framed as a mother’s words to her daughter, cautions against making babies in order to possess something. ”Freedom Now,” which she dedicated to Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, contrasts a prisoner with his self-righteous jailers. The new songs also included a blues piece, ”Give Me a Reason,” about a romance at its breaking point, and ”This Time,” in which the singer decides, ”I will not be vulnerable.”
Ms. Chapman is trying to bring together three schools of songwriting: the social activism of the 1960’s (as in ”Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution”), the private confessionals of the 1970’s (”Baby Can I Hold You”) and the unadorned storytelling of the 1980’s (”Fast Car”). It’s not easy; rhetoric awaits on one side, psychobabble on another, and some of Ms. Chapman’s songs succumb. And where activist songs invite participation, confessionals shun it. At the moment, Ms. Chapman has borrowed an approach from Bruce Springsteen’s solo playing. She tells a few careful anecdotes, complete with morals, and delivers songs unadorned and unsmiling.
Ms. Chapman’s most direct songs insist on maintaining personal integrity in a harsh world, a message that has more to do with individual conscience than with shared action. Although she invokes a ”revolution” in which ”poor people gonna rise up and get their share,” she steers away from creating a community among her listeners; the concert didn’t even include a singalong. Her songs are eloquent, yet as Ms. Chapman wrestles with the conflict between community and privacy, it wouldn’t hurt for her to loosen up a little.