Music Review: Chapman maintains role as voice of conscience


By Steve Morely

Tales of life on the soul-damaged inner-city fringes are a specialty of much-respected Tracy Chapman, who is active in supporting numerous social reforms.

Chapman uses blues and soul as occasional touchstones, but she’s essentially an heir to the protest-and consciousness-based music of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Her latest single, America, is as scathing an outcry against war, nationalism and racial inequality as anything written by Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye or Bob Marley.

Her seventh album Where You Live finds her easily keeping pace in terms of artistry and lyrical impact. In songs like Going Back, survival means removing oneself from squalor and urban alienation by retreating from the present into memories of times and places held dear. More troubling is the level of dissociation required to endure abuse and humiliation, a topic she tackles on Never Yours and 3,000 Miles.

Not even spiritual comfort is an option for the addicted prostitute in Before Easter. Full of shame, she resolves, “I won’t let Jesus find me/ If Jesus comes around again/ I’ve got the rock, the needle, the bottle of sorrows/ And Jesus Jesus Jesus knows.” Sung in the first person, the song might seem to advocate outright rebellion or using drugs or alcohol as a spiritual surrogate. More likely, Chapman has etched a piercing image of the insidious shame-and-addiction cycle that keeps substance abusers bound to the very behavior they detest in themselves. Tragically, the compassion so readily offered by Christ appears out of reach to the song's character, save for the distant possibility of deliverance suggested in the phrase “Jesus Jesus Jesus knows.”

On Change, which concludes the disc, Chapman puts a hopeful spin on the disturbing realities she refuses to gloss over in favor of easy, one-eye-closed answers. Chapman's unflinching look at society's debris makes Where You Live a difficult place to visit, yet also serves as a reminder that realism need not always equal pessimism.

Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.