Any serious-minded artist who calls an album Matters of the Heart would normally be asking for trouble — titles like that are generally reserved for Valerie Bertinelli TV movies. For Tracy Chapman, though, a little bit of maudlin goes a long way. Chapman’s astonishing 1988 debut, Tracy Chapman, is still a pinnacle of singer-songwriter craft — assured and determined, its songs rooted in the folk narrative tradition yet adding a modern edge. (”Behind the Wall” not only predated the topic of Public Enemy’s antiauthoritarian ”911 Is a Joke,” but did it with a field-holler melody.) Yet on its follow-up, Crossroads (1989), Chapman mostly whined about being reduced to ”a white man’s drone” in the ”material world.” Even Sean Penn handled success better than that.
Chapman’s internal debate about whether or not she has ”sold out” continues a little on Matters of the Heart. (”I Used to Be a Sailor” — about a seaman stranded on an island without any means of escape — is clearly a price-of- success metaphor.) Yet the album breathes easier, both in its lyrics and its music. Chapman seems more reconciled to balancing her public life with her private one, and she sounds a lot more human as a result. ”Here I sit, I’m feeling sorry for myself,” she sings at one point, adding with the slightest hint of self-deprecating humor, ”It’s quite a sight.”
The songs are stronger than those on Crossroads, whether Chapman is offering consolation to a friend or lover in ”Open Arms” or pondering guns in the ghetto in ”Bang Bang Bang.” With coproducer Jimmy Iovine, she also continues to master the art of folk-pop that’s fully produced, yet still sparse and airy. There are plenty of instruments on each track, but you’d never know it. Everything is centered on her voice (which sounds much warmer than it did on Crossroads), a strummed guitar or two, and light percussion. The music glides along, with a few inventive extra touches like the swooping electric guitar of Living Colour’s Vernon Reid gently insinuating itself into ”Bang Bang Bang.”
The album’s centerpiece is its remarkable seven-minute title song, which finds Chapman bluntly picking over an obsessive love affair that has left her both confused and enlightened. The taut musical accents — congas nipping at each verse — add masterfully to the tension of Chapman spitting out lyrics like ”I’ve made myself sick/I can’t think of anything else/I can’t sleep at night.” The performance makes the onslaught of bland male and female singer-songwriters who have followed in her wake sound truly wimpy.
With her humorless delivery, Chapman can still make Leonard Cohen sound like the life of the party. And she remains the epitome of political correctness: Singing about women’s rights, corporate fat cats, and the lack of ”clean air to breathe/Pure water to drink of,” she could forge a second career as a Democratic presidential contender. Those sentiments may be liberal clichés, but that doesn’t make them any less noble. In the end, Chapman still wants to be someone, be someone — only a slightly better someone in an improved world. On Matters of the Heart, she’s back on track toward that goal. A-