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I recently decided, for reasons of space (and because I don't listen to half my CD collection because I can't find CD's I want), to go digital and store all my music in the cloud. First, I am going to have a listen to my collection and only include albums that make the cut. This gives me a great excuse to listen to some albums I've not listened to in a while.
First out of the box was this album, 'Crossroads', by Tracy Chapman. First released in 1989, it was her 'difficult' second album, and one I bought as her first album, 'Tracy Chapman' was one of the best debuts ever. The genre is officially 'contemporary folk', which just means that her minimalist folk style has here been beefed up with a bit more oomph, so some country thrown in, a pop influence here, rock influence there. Chapman's voice, however, remains pure folk.
The album consists of 10 tracks, all written/ co-produced by Tracy Chapman herself:-
"Be Careful of My Heart"
"Born to Fight"
"A Hundred Years"
"All That You Have Is Your Soul"
For me, there are two stand out tracks on here, and they stand out because of the 'sameness' of much of the rest of the album. The first is 'Freedom Now', written as a tribute to the then still-imprisoned Nelson Mandela, and full of the protest rhetoric that Tracy Chapman does best. The song is simple, lyrically strong, with great harmony to it. It felt to me like a song left off the first album, not for quality reasons though.
The second stand out is the final track, 'All That You Have is Your Soul', (which features Neil Young) and again is lyrically strong, telling the sad story of someone looking back on their life with regret. 'Don't be tempted by the shiny apple..'; is she singing to us, or thinking out loud? It sounds like a poem set to music, though perhaps just slightly outstays its welcome with an over 5 minute playing time.
The rest of the album, a mix of 'protest' songs and 'personal' songs, settles firmly into the 'average' category; not bad, but nothing memorable.
'Crossroads' is a shot across the bow of her critics, a little too personal for me (save my soul, save myself she muses), 'Material World' revisits themes from her first album (listen to 'Mountains o' Things', its better), 'Born to Fight' is a clumsy (for me) anti-racism song, and 'Sub-City' a well-meaning song about the plight of the poor and homeless in the urban jungle, who's intent is better than its execution.
'A Hundred Years' is nice and catchy, 'This Time', and 'Be Careful of my Heart' are both decent middle of the road, radio-friendly tracks, and 'Bridges' is definitely a track that never made the cut on the first album.
The album was only a moderate success, which means in real terms it was a failure; Tracy Chapman had won the 1988 Grammy for 'Best New Artist', so for this album to peak at only no.9 in the U.S charts, and to only have one single release 'Crossroads' , it meant the rush to put out a quick second album was a mistake. She waited three years before releasing the next one.
Second albums are always tough, mainly because the artist had several years to perfect the songs on that breakthrough first album, and far less to work on the second. On balance, that is the case here. The album feels like a mixture of good material , material written deliberately to be a little more mainstream, and material that didn't make the cut on the first album, and has been worked on a little for this. I wonder if the title 'Crossroads' was a deliberate choice; do I continue to do my thing, well-written, socially observant songs, or go the way I am being pushed, a mainstream, more radio-friendly 'soft' non-threatening protest singer?. Personally, I don't think she ever resolved this.
Would I recommend this? Actually I would. As I said, it is not a bad album, just an average one slightly raised up by two stronger tracks. Chapman's voice is always a pleasure to listen to, being so unique, and some of her lyrics are genuinely thought provoking, but she just needs a better focus on quality on this album.
It will be one that makes the cut.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Freedom Now
3 Be Careful Of My Heart
4 Born To Fight
5 This Time
7 Material World
8 Sub City
9 Hundred Years
10 All That You Have Is Your Soul