It's almost ironic that, four years ago, when Tracy Chapman enjoyed her biggest radio hit (and a not insignificant comeback buzz), it was with a modern slant on the old 12-bar blues. The languid, sexy "Give Me One Good Reason" found Chapman all but bursting into joyous song as she ran down the tried-and-true lament of a good love gone wrong. Face it: Only Tracy Chapman could make singing the blues feel like a detour into happy town. I think she may have even been smiling in the video (though it might have been just an odd camera angle or gas). The irony is that, as followers of the earnest singer/songwriter know, her work is often so serious it borders on the dreary. If it's a good time you crave, hanging out at the Chapman crib might not be in order. With her lovely but monochromatic alto and her sturdy acoustic guitar, Chapman has always seemed like the sort of person to point out the plight of factory workers who stitched up those fly new Nikes you're wearing. Like, bummer, man, ya know?
On her new album, Telling Stories, Chapman isn't any more lighthearted than before, but there are nonetheless some gorgeous moments to be heard. Moments of lovely melodies, quiet beauty, aching heartbreak, delicate emotion and sensual shadings. Much of the work concerns itself with love in particular, the notion of pledging oneself to someone for eternity. On "Wedding Song" (RealAudio excerpt), Chapman, framed by country-tinged guitars and artfully arranged vocal harmonies, lets herself be swept up (as much as she can be swept up) in a jangly, midtempo display of openness and undying devotion. ("To you I have revealed all my shame, all my faults, all my virtues.") It's a wonderful track, as is the quiet waltz "Unsung Psalm" (RealAudio excerpt), which appears to be either about a funeral or a last act of redemption and carries the hushed, weighted solemnity of an Appalachian country-blues song. Satisfying, as well, is the title track, propelled by an insistent organ riff and laid-back, folk-rock bar-band grooves.
That Chapman nonetheless sounds this close to miserable throughout the album should come as no surprise that is, after all, her longstanding M.O. Unfortunately, about midway through, a certain monotony creeps in; it seems as if Chapman herself begins losing interest. The spareness and one-note melancholy inherent in her voice eventually becomes a drone, and the collection, which had kicked off with a noticeable burst of energy, winds itself down into ... well, dreariness. My advice? Play only the first six songs and call it a day unless, of course, you're into wallowing in well-intentioned misery.