Tracy Chapman,
Let It Rain
(Elektra, 2002)

When Tracy Chapman titled her gorgeous, 1992 album Matters of the Heart, she not only came up with a title for a single album; she found the four words that most accurately describe her musical approach. Let It Rain's barrage of delicate, poignant melodies and confessions illustrates that every song is a matter of the heart for Chapman. While each Chapman album conveys a unique honesty and integrity, only this latest release captures a sound that does justice to the distinct and immediately gripping melancholy of her voice, deeply resonant with the Mississippi Delta's legendarily ghostly blues or the harrowing, broken-hearted chant of an Alabama chain gang.

"If I never see another sun ... I'll gladly take my place/in the world beyond," Chapman croons on the bleak but exquisite "Another Sun," a poignant craving for escape from suffering and death's guaranteed repose. "If no love will comfort me/If no kind words come/To offer hope or peace/When I have fallen/If I be a stranger/Friend of no one," Chapman continues on one of the best songs of her career. These are songs of an emotional depth almost unheralded in today's musical climate of pop trash, lascivious music videos and a seemingly endless supply of bubble gum. Chapman's enduring refusal to produce her albums to death, despite her big deal with Elektra, is an act of heroism, with Let It Rain standing as her most courageous effort yet.

But while Chapman's work rarely lacks emotion, her songwriting has never pierced the heart with a sharper blade. These 12 new songs achieve a poetry that eclipses even her best work, as on the gospel-tinged death chant, "Hallellujah," a wickedly raw song that gushes with hand claps, tambourines and a haunted acoustic guitar. "The sun will rise/the stars will shine/turning day to dusk/and night to dawn/We'll pass on," she bellows. More than just "songs," many of these pieces are evocative of prayer hymns. "The picture makes a promise/The flesh lets it be broken," she laments on the somber "Broken" as a sudden, seductive throb of drums stomps through the heart of the song.

With its succession of brooding, understated ballads, Let It Rain amounts to an album about as cheerful as Leonard Cohen on a rainy day. These are songs of death, desire, heartbreak and mourning, and Chapman's piercing, blues-laden writing leaves little to be hoped for. On the eerie and appropriately titled "In the Dark," Chapman almost seems to pine for ruin, having abandoned hope for anything even a slight shade brighter. "Make me fumble/Make me fall/Make my heart stop and start/To tremble uncontrollably/Let my eyes see fear make desire/Keep those who long apart/Forbid the kiss/And leave us innocent/Of the things some do in the dark," she murmurs through the song's sultry, candle-lit ambiance. Like Cohen's recent, deeply intimate Ten New Songs, Chapman, along with producer John Parish, keeps the polish to a minimum here, allowing the bare pain of her voice and words to resonate with absolute clarity.

On many of her past albums, including the universally hailed debut, Chapman appeared to struggle for a sound of her own. A modest but still too slick '80s production mars the hushed, earnest intimacy of classics like "Fast Cars" and the signature "Talkin' Bout a Revolution." It is no wonder that Chapman's unaccompanied vocal performance on the stirring "Behind the Wall" rings like a stroke of genius. The folkish leanings of 1992's Matters of the Heart delivered a gorgeous album and a classic song in "Bang Bang Bang," but not until her breakthrough single, "Give Me On Reason," did she seem close to discovering the sound that fits her voice like a glove: the blues.

With success comes the pressure for continued success, however, and while the catchy single "Telling Stories" from 2000's album of the same name made for a compelling listen, still the album's most memorable tunes are confined to its concluding handful of stripped-down ballads. Tracks like "First Try" are capable of ringing tears from the very first flicker of a mandolin, banjo or tambourine, reminiscent of the kind of pathos Emmylou Harris achieves on recent triumphs such as "Red Dirt Girl" or Wrecking Ball." Some songs on Telling Stories squandered the opportunity envisioned by its final few tracks, though, resorting to a radio-eager clutter of organs, electric guitars, synthetic backing vocals and beats that were just a bit too "hip." But beginning with "Unsung Psalm," the album's centerpiece, Chapman's voice comes alive amidst a faintly wailing musical atmosphere, an atmosphere that blossoms with astonishing power and grace on Let It Rain.

Chapman and Parish neglect the pressure of commercial success at every turn, making for an album that is at once accessible and challenging. Some songs, such as the gorgeously fragile title track or the raw, barn-stomping and angry "Hard Wired," are like listening to a broken-hearted woman's whispered prayers from the other side of a bedroom wall. ""Give me hope/That help is coming/When I need it most," she pines on the title track, "Let It Rain/let it flood these streets and wash me away/To where it makes no difference who I am." While this refusal to compromise her integrity serves up a couple of bland duds, such as the aimless "Goodbye" or the wandering instrumental, "Over in Love," this is an unusually rewarding album.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 8 February 2003

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