Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Wednesday, March 22 2000, 10:11 PM
Pick up Tracy Chapman's newest album with delight and hope; put it down with sadness. The spirit is not here.
Chapman has a brilliant voice, one that speaks out yet preserves a sense of personal meditation. Her ability to combine driving lyricism with fervent opposition to injustice attracted enormous attention with her 1988 debut and 1989's Crossroads album. Today, though, the singer of anthems like "Talkin' Bout a Revolution" and "Freedom Now" produces an album where one mild line --- "Forty acres to a forty-ounce / Don't seem fair" --- is about as much social expression as appears. From passion to quietism don't seem fair either.
The meditative quality of Chapman's voice is in full control of Telling Stories. The opening pair of songs, the title track and "Less than Strangers," return listeners to an old and familiar Chapman. Even their orchestration emerges straight from her first two albums, which surprises less after realizing that Dave Kershenbaum, who produced those '80s recordings, has returned for this '00s occasion. Time moves forward every day, but Chapman/Kershenbaum headed back into their well-domesticated musical vocabulary. These tracks are the best in the album, accomplished with skill and persuasiveness. Thoughts tumble out, an interior life emerges, and two difficult relationships gain meaning.
From there, the album plummets towards meaninglessness. Repetitious and thin lyrics overwhelm "Speak the Word" and "It's Okay." Banal and trite observations on love and life fill tracks like "Wedding Song" and "Unsung Psalm". The latter song's banality emerges in verses like:
Do you live by the book do you play by the rules
Do you care what is thought by others about you?
If this day is all that is promised to you
Do you live for the future the present the past?
Try Longfellow's "Psalm of Life": it has the same tedious sentiments, more convincingly expressed. By the time we reach Chapman and Emmylou Harris trilling together "Does heaven have enough angels yet?"in "The Only One", a disturbing sense of Victorianism has crept into the lyrics.
High professional polish holds together work that would not gain more than a moment's attention for a lesser artist. That's a technical aesthetic that does well for the beautiful Herb Ritts portraits in the album notes, but polishing cannot hide the morose retreat of this music.
"Can't say what I mean" says Chapman in the album's last song. Hopefully, that's a temporary problem.
Telling Stories is available from Elektra Records