Even as Tracy Chapman albums go, last year’s Let It Rain is a subdued affair.
Arrangements are typically spare, with voice and guitar mixed up front. This is nothing new for Chapman, of course — only this time, the other instrumentation is pushed almost to the margins.
The folksinger affects a ghostly presence through plaintive singing and gentle guitar; songs have much more space to rise and swell, and build dramatically when Chapman heightens the tension even slightly.
Thankfully, producer John Parish seems to have a considerably less polished touch than David Kershenbaum, who helmed Chapman’s first two albums and also Telling Stories, from 2000. The new songs feel liberated by their back-porch ambience, especially when compared to her work with Kershenbaum, which was too often roped in by an adult-contemporary sheen (making Chapman sound like she was filling the lead chair on a Paul Simon record).
Chapman’s had her first hit with “Fast Car” in 1988 (from her self-titled debut). Another seven years passed before she ignited the public imagination again, when “Give Me One More Reason” (the lead-off single from album four, New Beginning) took over both radio and MTV.
Chapman’s career, viewed solely by those bookends, seems marred by a long stretch of obscurity.
She’s hardly been idle, though; dig through her six-album catalog and you’ll discover countless riches. Chapman may have drifted in and out of the spotlight, but she never ceased to evolve as a musician.
The soothing lull of her often-remarkable songs is misleading, doing nothing to lessen the dreadlocked singer’s entreaties for emotional engagement. Chapman’s music uses thoughtfulness as a weapon, though not a violent one; her posture never feels aggressive.
Chapman’s voice is shock turned into compassion; even at her most optimistic, she never loses her sense of urgency. The healing in her songs often comes across as scar tissue.
Chapman, raised in working-class Cleveland, showed creative flair early; she was writing songs as a child not long after first picking up the guitar.
She caught the folk bug while a student (anthropology and African Studies) at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and began performing at coffeehouses. Fortuitously, a fellow student’s dad was Charles Koppelman of SBK Publishing, who eventually helped Chapman sign with Elektra Records (which has released all of her albums to date).
While “Fast Car” was a huge and unexpected hit, Chapman’s transition to fame wasn’t all that smooth.
“I look to the left, I look to the right,” she sums it up in the opening cut to Crossroads, her second album. “There’s hands that grab me on every side/ All you folks think I got my price/ At which I’ll sell all that’s mine.”
By the time of New Beginning — even brushing aside the uncharacteristic romantic sass of “Give Me One More Reason” — Chapman seemed, if possible, even more weary and exasperated than before.
“The whole world’s broke and it ain’t worth fixing,” the title cut begins. Yet despite tracks like “Rape of the World” (with lyrics like such as “This is the beginning of the end/ The most heinous of crimes/ The deadliest of sins”), Chapman never so much as raises her voice.
Let It Rain sees Chapman wielding fewer recriminatory “yous” and defensive “I’s”; the subtle evolution of her craft is evident throughout. Though some of the relationship songs cover familiar ground, the more topical pieces show Chapman continuing to explore new realms — and new, novel modes of expressing her longstanding muse — social observation.
The startlingly current “Hard Wired,” for instance, discusses isolation and voyeurism in the digital age, while juxtaposing its message against an antiquated arrangement.
The album has its share of fatalism (“I Am Yours,” for instance), with cuts such as “Say Hallelujah” and “Another Sun” taking it to the extreme, exploring the desire to die. (Both tracks touch on an attractive idea: If I were dead, at least I’d have no worries.) The latter song is somewhat glum; the former exalts death as part of a greater scheme.
But as is Chapman’s forte, neither song is precisely optimistic or pessimistic. And taken together, they are a kind of back-and-forth dialogue — and one that doesn’t unfold in black-and-white terms.
Tracy Chapman makes her first-ever Asheville appearance at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Tuesday, July 29 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($29.50-$36) are available at the Asheville Civic Center Box Office (259-5544), or through TicketMaster (251-5505).