By Tomos Wyn
TW: Domestic Violence, Themes of Institutional Neglect
Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album is a gem often-overshadowed by its hit single ‘Fast Car’. This single has been and shall forever be remembered fondly for its heartbreaking narrative of a woman constantly tossed to the sidelines by those she holds dear. However, Chapman’s self-titled album is so much more than this highly popular piece. The album was, rightfully, critically acclaimed. The album, alongside ‘Fast Car’ led to Chapman’s winning of the ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’, ‘Best New Artist’, and ‘Best Female Pop Vocal Performance’ categories at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Whilst this masterpiece received its rightful praise at the time of its release, over the years the album, and to an extent, Chapman herself has been reduced to a single song. I aim, with this review, to reintroduce Tracy Chapman to contemporary audiences. I wholeheartedly believe that Chapman’s stunning vocals and the important, still-relevant themes in her songwriting deserve the same level of appreciation in the modern-day as it did in the late 80s.
Channelling the socialist sentiments of other Folk artists, such as Woody Guthrie, Chapman’s self-titled is consistent in its inclusion of themes of injustice and methods of change.
The leading track, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’, is an easy folk-driven number that, powerfully, speaks of an upcoming revolution in the minds of those who exist in an economic system that does not favour them. It is an anthem for those striving for a change in the conditions of the workers and others left behind, and sets a strong precedent for what the listener ought to expect.
Skipping ahead to track number four, ‘Behind the Wall’ is an incredibly moving, narrative-driven, a cappella piece. It is this number where I believe that Chapman’s glorious tenor vocals and gift of songwriting shine. The recurring lyrics, read:
“Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
The police always come late
If they come at all.”
In this piece, Chapman details a case of domestic violence. With the repetition of “last night I heard the screaming”, one may, and arguably should infer that the events are not isolatable incidents. When the woman, the victim in this account, calls the police, they do not help. The encounter reads:
“And when they arrive
They say they can’t interfere
With domestic affairs
Between a man and his wife
And as they walk out the door
The tears well up in her eyes”
The following night, we are led to believe the woman, unfortunately, passes at the hands of her abuser. As a result, the police, alongside an ambulance, arrives at the scene with the same officer expressing that he’s there to “keep the peace”. This song is clearly an expression of disdain against the police force. Considering Chapman’s background as a black woman and the tensions existing between black communities across the globe and their respective police forces, it is unsurprising to see this theme in her work. The persistence of this attitude in contemporary society should urge the reader to consider listening to this song, which masterfully articulates the contempt that some in society have for the suffering of others.
‘If Not Now…’, in stark contrast to ‘Behind the Wall’, details far more personal matters. With a simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, bass guitar, piano, and drums, Chapman recounts a sentiment urging us, the listener, to live in the moment. Though, the sentiment is arguably far greater than this. She passionately sings of loving in the moment. She details the pointlessness of making promises for future love; a ‘love declared for days to come,
ss as good as none.’ I see this as a particularly poignant expression of the futility of promises. Sure, a promise of everlasting love is wonderful, but if we do not live and love in the moment then it all collapses under itself along with the pursuit of forever. To love fully and without distraction, one must love in the moment with their entire being.
To close, Chapman’s self-titled album is both a narrative and sonic masterpiece. Personally, I believe the simplicity of the music alongside the powerful, yet complex themes in the lyrics accompany one another particularly well. Chapman is a storyteller and poet, with the ability to enchant those who hear her words, and her debut album, and all the songs left unmentioned in this article, deserve a resurgence within contemporary circles.
You can listen to Tracy Chapman’s album here.
Image: Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman Self-titled debut album via Flickr