By Karen Schoemer, New York Times, April 26, 1992
At the Farm Aid benefit concert in Dallas last month, the final few hours were reserved for the really big names: Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Tracy Chapman. As the only woman and the only black performer, Ms. Chapman’s inclusion in this elite group seemed impressive. Mr. Nelson, Mr. Young and Mr. Simon, all protest singers in their own way, have each been performing and recording for more than 20 years, while Ms. Chapman’s career goes back only four years and two albums.
Introduced by Arlo Guthrie as the most important “poet and dreamer of her day,” Ms. Chapman took the opportunity to preview material from her third album, “Matters of the Heart” (Elektra 61215; cassette and CD), due for release this week. Her new songs are indeed protest songs: “Woman’s Work” describes female disenfranchisement, and “Bang Bang Bang” details the problem of crime among inner-city youths.
Ms. Chapman’s rise to prominence has been a fast one, and it’s based mostly on her 1988 debut album “Tracy Chapman.” As an evolved folkie with issue-conscious lyrics, she’s a throwback to the pre-MTV era, even the pre-disco era, when the acoustic guitar signaled songwriterly sensitivity and an image was whatever audiences saw on stage. While popular groups like INXS were appealing to teen-agers through matinee-idol looks and whopping dance beats, Ms. Chapman was making resoundingly adult music, soft and temperate and literate.
In some ways, her success did mark a revolution in contemporary pop. Before Bonnie Raitt was winning Grammys, before Garth Brooks had said howdy to the top of the charts, Ms. Chapman proved with songs like “Fast Car” and “Talkin”Bout a Revolution” that old-fashioned musical values were commercially viable.
Since her breakthrough debut, though, Ms. Chapman has seemed to be straining to stay afloat. As if to confirm that her talent was indeed as weighty as her reputation, her second album, “Crossroads” (1989), packed enough messages and big ideas to keep a score of protest singers busy. Where the “Tracy Chapman” songs spoke volumes in whispers and minute details (the protagonist of “Fast Car” was a member of that most invisible blue-collar species, the supermarket checkout girl), “Crossroads” tried to deal with slavery, capitalism, urban decay, even the salvation of humankind’s soul in one easy whack. “Fast Car” worked because it balanced desperation with naive optimism; the sweeping statements of “Crossroads” harangued without offering hope. Overnight, Ms. Chapman seemed to have lost her innocence.
The long-awaited and often-delayed “Matters of the Heart” regains little slipped ground. The first several songs come across like an issue-of-the-week tally sheet: “Bang Bang Bang” is a despondent anthem for gun-toting youths, “So” rails against money-grubbing corporate fat cats. “I Used to Be a Sailor” is about the alienation of the individual. It’s like “Fast Car” without the vehicle: “I used to be a sailor, sail across the sea/Now I’m just an island since they took my boat away from me.” The melodies are without lift, the production thick with percussion and clotting keyboards, the vocals as gloomy as death’s door. Ms. Chapman has dealt with all these themes before; what were once protests now sound like whining. The songs are such downers they should be sold by prescription only.
The album’s second half feels a bit lighter: “If These Are the Things” steps up the tempo with a delicately rolling guitar line, and “Short Supply” looks toward a place with “grassy hilltops and clean air to breathe.” The title song trades the political for the personal without being confessional. But the moments of relief on “Matters of the Heart” tend to be fleeting or superficial. In the space of three albums, Ms. Chapman, who is in her late 20’s, has sunk to a world-weariness well beyond her years. Her reputation may be that of a poet, dreamer and revolutionary, but her art is having trouble living up.