Business as usual

Back in high school, Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album was the soundtrack to my attempt to cram John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for English literature class.

At the time, Chapman’s socially-conscious music was a much publicized and lauded move away from the MTV-shaped female figureheads of music that dominated the radio and television airwaves. As if being Annie Lennox was a bad thing.

People expected great things from Chapman, being a “serious” artist with a “real” message and all.

Twelve years later, most press about Chapman labels the trembly-voiced singer as being too serious and too real.

And yet, the forces that gave Chapman such great publicity more than a decade ago still give her context. Whereas Chapman was styled as the anti-Madonna back then, she could very well serve as the anti-Britney Spears and the anti-Christina Aguilera.

In other words, Chapman has pretty much stood still while the world around her has gone in circles.

What does that mean for Telling Stories, Chapman’s first album since scoring a hit with “Give Me a Reason” four years ago?

It means it’s business as usual for Chapman. Telling Stories has moments of quiet beauty and introspection, with sparsely arranged songs that draw inward even when being uptempo and extroverted.

Telling Stories doesn’t quite have the live-in-the-studio feel that made 1995’s New Beginning such a strong performance, but some of the flourishes on the album — Uillean pipes, violins — add just enough garnish to make things interesting.

For the first half of the album, Chapman keeps things lively, placing one fast tempo song after another. As Telling Stories progresses, Chapman slows down the momentum and delivers the kind of material for which she’s best known. Toward the end, an appearance by Emmylou Harris adds honey to an already exquisite, bittersweet album.

Telling Stories packs few surprises for anyone familiar with Tracy Chapman’s work, and in a strange way, that’s pretty comforting.