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TRACY CHAPMAN (Buy CDs by this artist)
Tracy Chapman (Elektra) 1988
Crossroads (Elektra) 1989
Matters of the Heart (Elektra) 1992
New Beginning (Elektra) 1995
Telling Stories (Elektra) 2000
Collection (Elektra) 2001
Let It Rain (Elektra) 2002
Where You Live (Elektra) 2005

Chapman's powerful lyrics and deep, emotion-packed voice (shockingly similar, on first brush, to Joan Armatrading's) gave the Cleveland-born singer/songwriter's exceptional debut the impact of a smooth stone wrapped in unprocessed cotton. The unadorned electric and acoustic arrangements of David Kershenbaum's tasteful production focus attention on Chapman's knockout performances of resonantly passionate songs: "Fast Car," "Behind the Wall," "Talkin' Bout a Revolution." The odes to romance ("Baby Can I Hold You," "For My Lover," "For You") leaven her anger with undiminished intensity and conviction.

Acknowledging the intrusive challenge presented by her sudden and massive success, Chapman channeled the threats to her privacy and independence (most bluntly addressed in the title song) into broadly relevant songs of personal freedom — romantic, social and political — on the satisfying second album. Beyond that, Crossroads — which safely incorporates more varied and expansive instrumentation and production — upholds the debut's commitment to social protest, supporting Nelson Mandela ("Freedom Now") and idealism ("All That You Have Is Your Soul"), while drawing a critical bead on governmental neglect ("Subcity") and upward mobility ("Material World"). Chapman saves the most affecting lyrics on Crossroads for relationships, where she mines wounds and anxieties for aching odes to love and loneliness.

Having neatly sidestepped the sophomore jinx, Chapman then fell into a gaping career hole. For her third album, she took some extra time, brought in co-producer Jimmy Iovine and a new breed of sessionmen (Mike Campbell, Roy Bittan, Tony Levin and Manu Katche in place of Denny Fongheiser, Larry Klein and Russ Kunkel) and made Matters of the Heart, a dull record that is no major stylistic departure other than sounding incrementally more like a Joni Mitchell record. Emotionally, Chapman sounds despondent, self-critical and unsettled; although she paints a grim portrait of the gun culture's devastating impact (in the lead-off "Bang Bang Bang") and offers a fragment of generalized feminism in "Woman's Work," she can't concentrate on social commentary. Her lyrics all turn inward and, with the exception of the incongruously idealistic "Dreaming on a World," down. "All we know will cease to be," she promises in the vaguely ecological "Short Supply"; "I sit and rot behind these padded walls," she announces in "I Used to Be a Sailor." Singing "I only have nightmares" and "Why don't I dream anymore" in one song and "I'll keep on dreaming" in another, Chapman belies the strength and confidence of her voice with the wavering uncertainty of her vision. Only on "Open Arms," the first of two love songs that close the record, does she regain her composure, offering solace and support with compelling grace.

Handsomely if plainly produced by Chapman and Don Gehman, the belated New Beginning doesn't even begin to live up to its title in any sense other than commercial. (The beaming photographs are likewise misleading.) Rather than relocate the burning heart of her passionate artistry, set off down some surprising stylistic path or even address her need for a personal renaissance, Chapman somberly offers prosaic philosophy, familiar romantic pledges and abject self-doubt in songs alternately too preachy and personal to be entertaining. "The whole world's broke and it ain't worth fixing/It's time to start all over, make a new beginning," she sings in the title track, and that's about as deep as it gets. In "Heaven's Here on Earth," she calls for "peace and love and understanding" — a commendable feeling, to be sure, but hardly a stimulating notion, and mighty shallow expression for such a gifted poet. Likewise, "The Rape of the World" adds nothing to the musical literature on ecological destruction. The quiet, intimate intensity of Chapman's singing is undiminished, but none of the sentiments is as potent as the tenderness of her voice. She dons a hair shirt in "At This Point in My Life" — "I've done so many things wrong, I don't know if I can do right" — but it's a mystery why, and there goes an otherwise affecting creation. In closing New Beginning at the point where it should have begun, Chapman offers "I'm Ready." Too late. (Following that finale, there's an unlisted love song as unadorned and attractive as anything on the album.)

[Ira Robbins]