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Tracy Chapman's back

By Gary Susman

FEBRUARY 14, 2000:  The '80s never ended. The so-called Greed Decade -- with its Wall Street fever, political disillusionment (thanks to a slippery yet much-loved president), and bubblegum music -- never died. The only difference between then and now is that, in the Gordon Gekko days, we felt a twinge of uneasiness about the growing distance between the haves and have-nots. Today, however, with Internet IPOs, e-trading, and Regis Philbin minting new millionaires every day, we have lost even that minimal capacity for shame.

There was a moment, though, when sincere feeling might have been possible, thanks in no small part to Tracy Chapman. At the height of Milkenmania 12 years ago, she first appeared -- wiry, hungry, armed with an acoustic guitar and a plaintive voice, and talkin' 'bout a revolution. Somehow she managed to cut through the din of greed-is-good messages permeating the culture with her debut album of Harvard Square coffeehouse folk anthems about domestic violence and homelessness. She scored a huge hit with "Fast Car," her hopeless, hopeful slice of life among the lowly.

Was she a force for artistry and social consciousness or just another easily co-opted voice of dissent who unwittingly helped turn guilt into a commodity and a status symbol? Probably both. Two of pop's mini-industries -- riot grrrl and Lilith -- owe Chapman a debt of influence, but whatever good intentions they may once have embodied have been reduced, toned, and sculpted into the sleek, blonde showcases that are Courtney Love and Jewel, those two advertisements for themselves. Whatever ground might have been gained has been lost, and we find ourselves back in a place where the culture's primary concern is individual self-promotion, which we rationalize without compunction by calling it "self-esteem."

And at this time of shamelessness, here comes Tracy Chapman again, carrying enough shame on her back to redeem us all. Having sat out most of the '90s (she hasn't released a record in five years, and her only hit of the decade was the pleasant throwaway "Give Me One Reason"), she returns with Telling Stories (Elektra). Produced by David Kershenbaum, who did the honors on her first two 10 years ago, the album finds Chapman returning to the original acoustic solo/small-group sound that first brought her attention. And over her spartan arrangements, she's singing again with perfect earnestness about personal and political travails -- there's no difference, remember? -- as if earnestness had never gone out of fashion.

That could be a handicap, given that we now like any hint of medicinal reality sweetened with at least a spoonful of irony. She's usually blunt and straightforward, as on "Paper and Ink," where she sings, "Money's only paper only ink/We'll destroy ourselves if we can't agree/The world we know will fall piece by piece." (Yes, she's right to decry avarice, but nuclear war? Why, that's so passé, darling.) The closest Chapman comes to having a sense of humor is on the title track, where she pushes her lament for the fictions that make up our everyday discourse into an imaginative riff: the stories we spin become "science fiction," in which "I am the scary monster/I eat the city and as I leave the scene/In my spaceship I am laughing." Okay, she's no Weird Al, but it's nice to see a little humanizing absurdism. No coincidence that this is the only tune on the album that can be said to rock, in the way that "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution" and "Give Me One Reason" did.

Otherwise, Chapman is so preoccupied with guilt and recriminations that the burden seems almost unbearable. "I'll try to keep the walls from falling down," goes one chorus. In "Unsung Psalm," the refrain is "If I lived right," as if to apologize for not doing so. Here, living right means to "have no desire," as if desire weren't what makes us human. Elsewhere, on "Devotion" and "First Try," the singer faults herself for infidelity and inability to give love. So she's as unforgiving of herself as she is of the rest of the world.

Still, it seems churlish to ask Chapman to lighten up; her lone-prophet-in-the-wilderness stance is a bracing tonic. And her tunes remain pretty enough to sell this bitter pill to fans with long memories and younger listeners yearning for a strong female voice with more to offer than Bouncin' Britney Spears and Screamin' Jessica Simpson. Of course, her exercises in remorse could, once again, become just another liberal accessory, making Telling Stories an ideal coaster for your NPR Morning Edition coffee mug.

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