My friend Omar mentioned Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album and encouraged folks to "[t]ake it out and pop it in the CD player. It’s still as good as you remember."
What I remember was using the album as a means to get through a summer reading assignment back in high school. The fall semester of my senior year was going to start, and I didn’t know I was supposed to be reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath beforehand. So I sped-read through it with Chapman playing in the background.
Yup. It was the perfect soundtrack.
Chapman was a radio staple in 1988, but I get the impression the Honolulu DJs abiding by the corporate playlists would have preferred to spin something else. My family didn’t really warm up to Chapman’s husky, trembling voice either. I bought the album on vinyl. When CDs finally took over, I opted not to upgrade.
Then Omar had to say the album was as good as I remember, and it made me realize that, in reality, I did like the album. Not as much as 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe or the Sugarcubes’ Life’s Too Good, but I didn’t dislike it either. (Funny how all three of those albums are on Elektra.)
So in January, I bought a used copy of Tracy Chapman, the album, to see if my teenager ears had failed me. It was like listening with brand new ears.
In a way, that’s exactly the case. The album was released in 1988, when I was a teenager. I could appreciate the fact it wasn’t a pop confection like the stuff my classmates were consuming, no questions asked. And I liked the fact nobody else in my family shared a remote fondness for it. I liked the album for pretty much all the wrong reasons.
Hearing it as an adult is another matter entirely. "Across the Lines" makes sense to me now that I’ve actually seen the "lines" specified in the title. In Austin, it’s called IH-35. And while "Why?" had resonance during the Ronald Reagan administration, the song takes on a stronger sense of urgency in the George W. Bush administration.
"Behind the Wall" struck me as overhanded when I was a kid. As an adult, I understand it isn’t.
Even musically, the album became richer in the nearly two decades I haven’t listened to it. The dub influence of "She’s Got a Ticket", the country feel of "For My Lover" — flew right past me back then.
I joke that music is wasted on the young, but it takes unearthing an album from my own youth to realize sometimes it’s exactly that case. Tracy Chapman, both singer and album, aren’t as a good as I remember — they’re actually better.