- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Our Bright Future

It has been two decades since Tracy Chapman burst into pop consciousness, launched improbably from the coffeehouses of Cambridge, Mass., to the top of the charts with her eponymously titled debut.

While she has a reputation as a singer of politically charged folk songs, she has always stood on firmer ground as a poet of romantic longing and loss. Her haunting alto, shot through with loneliness, seems to quaver perpetually on the edge of despondency. Her best-loved songs, including “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason,” portray women scratching out doomed lives on the margins in much the same way Bruce Springsteen gives voice to burned-out high school heroes - although with considerably less brio.

Miss Chapman doesn’t stray far from her singer-songwriter roots on “Our Bright Future,” her eighth full-length studio release and her second for Atlantic Records. Yet anyone who hasn’t followed her career since her last big commercial success - “New Beginning” from 1996 - will notice a wry cynicism bordering on fatalism in many of the tracks.

“For a Dream” has a gentle, soothing guitar part with a persistent hum of organ underneath, but Miss Chapman’s lyrics reflect turmoil bubbling up from the dulcet strains. She sings, “I picture us together, framed in gold leaf/ On the mantel with the others, one big happy family/ But that snapshot can’t be found, and I don’t trust my memory/ It’s alright, it’s alright, for a dream.”

Similarly, the “bright future” alluded to in the title track is not one offered as forthcoming. Indeed, Miss Chapman seems oddly out of step with a political moment that has brought earnest expressions of joy to most folk-rock aficionados. The antiwar “Our Bright Future” starts with an ominous rumble of guitar and a few eerily plucked electric guitar notes, picking up with organ and a strummed bouzouki - an instrument Miss Chapman has played on her records throughout her career. She sings, “To my father, what have you done/ To the children, born innocent/But come to harm, for dreams of glory.”

She sounds a cheerier, more utopian note on the infectiously upbeat “Something to See.” Here, Miss Chapman balances a lush church-organ melody with a simple, easygoing beat. It’s a minimalist sonic canvas, leaving ample room for the affirmative finger-snapping of appreciative folkies.

“I Did It All,” the second of the CD’s 11 tracks, isn’t among the best songs on the album, but it’s certainly the most uncharacteristic. Written as a boozy cabaret number, the song features an easy tickle of piano and a steel brush skittering over a high-hat. The song is a kind of “Non, je ne regrette rien” for the Lindsay Lohan generation, with Miss Chapman singing, “Slept in late, stayed up for days/ Partied hard did my twenties in a haze/Smoked second-hand in crowded bars/ With the A-list of B-list movie stars.”

She’s channeling a personality, not offering autobiographical testimony. Yet it’s enjoyable to hear Miss Chapman apply her talents to a treatment of a socially irredeemable character for a change.

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