Let's face it, Tracy Chapman is a national treasure. Despite not releasing an album since 2008's Our Bright Future, Chapman's musical catalog has stood up remarkably well since her breakthrough self-titled debut was released back in 1988. You know what we're talking about, the album that featured a photo of a baby-faced Chapman and featured her breakaway hit "Fast Car." Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind that, at the time when this was released, spandex-toting glam bands were ruling the airwaves.
I admittedly was listening to the aforementioned bands with studded belts and teased hair at the time and wasn't really interested in a female folk singer. In fact, it was the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. In fact, I didn't really get turned onto Tracy Chapman until she released her 2002 album Let It Rain. Although I was working at Alternative Press and covering pop-punk acts like Good Charlotte and New Found Glory, there was something irresistible about Chapman's music that I wasn't getting from bands that tried to create a circus—sometimes complete with backflips—onstage. Chapman's sound was clearly based in folk and gospel music and songs like "Broken" didn't need synchronized dance moves or fancy studio effects in order to provide an emotional resonance that truly defied language. It was wistful and hopeful at the same time, and Chapman's voice paired with a gently strummed acoustic guitar and sparse instrumentation really made the music stand out as something that wasn't just beautiful but was authentic in the sense that there seemed to be no separation between Tracy Chapman the person and Tracy Chapman the artist. (This is probably why Chapman doesn't like to talk about her personal life--it's already all there in the music.)
Like many acts who have a hit song early in their career, it's easy to simplify Chapman as a female song-writer who shone during the Lilith Fair era, but that's a huge oversimplification (and disservice) to the extensive body of work she's created for the past three decades. All eight of her albums are a cohesive collection of songs that explored concepts of love and loss in new ways that were exciting and depressing at the same time. For someone who had never really felt like they'd related to this type of songwriting approach, this was a pretty incredible revelation. It's hard to believe that this year Chapman celebrated her 50th birthday, because in many ways she seems ageless. Chapman has been out of the spotlight for a while, but in a way she's always around. In fact, I have no doubt that her music will captivate younger listeners the same way she continues to inspire people like me as well as the folks who have been with her from the beginning and now have families and mortgages. In that way, she's kind of the red thread running through all of these lives and uniting us in the process.
I wish I had some insider info on what Chapman has been up to and if she's planning a triumphant return that's completely antithetical to the gimmicks and posturing that's become so inherent in today's pop music landscape. That's not to say that things were better then, but Chapman's hallmark was the fact that she always just got up and played her songs and let them not only speak for her without any fancy gimmicks or production. The focus was on the music. On her. On those songs. "When time decides it won't stop for me / When the hawks and vultures are circling / I am yours if you are mine," Chapman sings on the plaintively beautiful and moving song "I Am Yours"—and this sentiment is what makes me so certain that Chapman is still there, waiting for the perfect time to swoop in like one of those majestic animals and remind us why we fell in love with her all over again.
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