A Retrospective Review of Tracy Chapman, Our Bright Future.
The winter rains have been far too slow arriving this year, but there are signs on the horizon that this situation is about to change. Not the harsh rains and hurricane force winds that so often batter the coastlines of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, but a coastal Christmas rain, the kind that dampens the redwoods and signals the end of 2020. Finally. I know what I need to do before the next year arrives. Time to turn to Tracy Chapman to help me decide what to think about next.
Here’s how it works. I listen to Tracy sing and then respond in written form in some fashion. Today, I decided to listen to her album, Our Bright Future, which I acquired nearly a decade ago. This time, I’ll be playing it using Amazon Music Unlimited, whose 3-month free trial offer is a convenient way to catch up on songs you’ve been meaning to listen to earlier in the year and somehow never managed to postpone. I enjoy revisiting “known known” artists like Tracy at times like this, when the seasons are changing and when I can discover new textures, tones, and storylines to the songs on each album. Songs are like palimpsests. They have layers upon layers, and their meanings unwrap themselves over time.
There are eleven tracks on this exquisite album, Our Bright Future, which was produced in 2008 in a Los Angeles recording studio by Tracy and Larry Klein, who plays electric and acoustic bass on the songs as well. Eleven tracks. Eleven chances to listen to Tracy tell me stories and prod me to think about unusual and precious things. Things like love and loss, and the enduring quality of spirit. A chance to blend history with autobiography and break down the walls that separate objective reality from the subjectively lived life. Eleven opportunities to respond spontaneously, in real time, as her songs echo in my living room while drops of redwood rain fall gently on the roof above.
And as always, Tracy: thank you for being you. The redwoods and I are happy to listen in to tales of your far from ordinary life once more.
1 – Sing for You: The time to sing for you is now. It is always now. I can hum along to this, but that does not mean that it is a simple thing, to sing for all of us. But maybe it is. Simple, I mean. Perhaps we are all each clothed in the lyrics of other people’s songs in the end. It is only the singer herself who bares her naked soul to the public. We listen from the darkness while you perform for us on stage. Hardly seems fair that way, I realize.
2 – I Did It All: It’s too early for cocktails, Tracy. It’s 11am in the morning, and the fog and rain still linger. Twist my arm, however, and I might relent. Make mine an Old Fashioned. I wonder: would you join me for a drink at Venus Distillery in Santa Cruz to fill me in on what “all” you did since you wrote this song in 2007? Did you do it all again? Have they made that made-for-TV movie about you yet? Maybe someone should speak with the folks at Apple TV+ about it, then. And does Dean Parks play clarinet at weddings and bar mitzvahs as well? He’s really good.
3 – Save Us All: Yes. He did. And He still does. Loves you, I mean. There are worse meals in life than bread, fish, and wine. Actually, that sounds just like my weekend dinner plans this week: cedar plank grilled California king salmon, homemade sourdough rye bread, and a bottle of Hamilton Family Chardonnay from Big Basin Vineyards from our cellar. Care to join us? Ask Buddha, Allah, and Krishna if they’ll be coming, too. Jesus is coming already. He has a standing invitation at the table, and He can bring any friends He likes. Or join us for New Year’s. You won’t have to play or sing or anything. Just be you. I would really dig that sort of thing, I think.
4 – Our Bright Future: This song took me a long time to appreciate. I had to fail a lot in life before it started to make sense. By now, my failures have accumulated to the point where any bright futures I once anticipated have been buried and left to deteriorate in the dustbin of history.
But the thing is, Tracy: The past and the future, they don’t even really exist, except as conceptual constructs of the ego-centric human mind. Not in the way one usually thinks about them, at any rate. The wars of the past and those of the future cannot stop the encroaching feeling of peace that surrounds us as we inhabit the time of the now. Listening to this song, despite the pain-laced content of the words, it is a peaceful experience for me. How do you manage this act of musical alchemy, Tracy? Actually, having Dean Parks accompany you probably helps. A lot. That Dean guy, the dude can play.
5 – For a Dream: Framed in gold leaf. Or golden leaves? The maple trees in Purisima Canyon are starting to turn gold, Tracy. And the redwood trees are shedding their spent needles in a shower of amber, orange, pale green, and topaz. How would it be if we are pictured together there, surrounded by the fallen gold of the forest – and not in a dream? Definitely better than the pain. The truth always seems simpler when walking in the redwoods. Do you think that your mother would have agreed? My mother loves the forest trails of her childhood. Maybe she passed that love on, or maybe I discovered it for myself. Never sure if nature or nurture hold more sway in such matters. What do you think?
6 – Thinking of You: Joey Waronker is great on percussion on this track. Did you consider actually howling at the moon in this song? I’ll bet that Sting would have done so, in an instant. No one howls like Sting. Well, the coyotes in the canyon are pretty good at it, too. They have pups this year, the Purisima Creek pack does. For some reason, your song makes me think about them. I hope that they have a warm and dry den to bed down in until the rain stops. Stop thinking so much, Tracy. Start feeling instead. You can learn a lot from young coyotes. Or by listening to Joe Gore play keyboards. Lovely sound you’ve got there, Joe. Pure. Like spun gold.
7 – A Theory: Dean Parks plays pedal steel as well? What can’t that man do? Run for President in 2020, perhaps? Dean 2020. I kinda like the sound of that. But, you know, it’s just a theory. An educated guess. A conclusion not foregone. Why not search for proof? Or just go out for lunch? How about meeting up for carnitas tacos at the Mercado in Pescadero? I’ll buy the beer if you’ll spring for the tacos.
8 – Conditional: Not for free? Know what has no strings attached? Hiking in the redwoods in the rain. Meet me at the Purisima Creek trailhead, and we’ll try to forget about all those things about yourself that you still cannot accept. Unconditional love, that is what the trees in the forest promise. No qualifiers. No liars. Just a lot of banana slugs, especially when it’s wet. And plenty of quail and rabbits when it’s dry.
9 – Something to See: Ah, the soothing sounds of Larry Goldings on Wurlitzer. And organ. What a talented bunch of musician friends you’ve got there, Tracy. Rock Deadrick is great on backup vocals as well. Know where’s no war and no grief? In the redwoods. Especially when it rains. Just try not to step on the newts. Tiny little guys, those newts, but very determined creatures. Have you ever seen dozens of newts emerging from their summer hibernation when the autumn rains begin to fall? Well, I have. Dozens upon dozens. Now THAT would be something for you to see!
10 – The First Person on Earth: I have a confession to make, Tracy. This song has long been my favorite on the album. I loved listening to it on long solo car trips from California to Montana and back again. Driving early in the morning on desolate dirt roads in eastern Oregon, you do really feel like the first AND the last person on earth. The first person awake, at any rate. When you’ve got 400 miles to go before you can set up your tent at the next campground, you tend to start your day early, before the dawn. And this song, it’s perfect for mornings like that. Love Carla Kihlstedt on violin on this track, by the way. And Rob Burger on vibraphone and pump organ. And Joey W. on percussion again. Dang, Tracy. You play with some good people!
11 – Spring: This is a song about spring, obviously. But it works with the early winter rains as well. When the rains return to the California coast each year, it’s the start of a new growing cycle. The wetness brings new growth, new sounds, new trickles and traces of life. Like the first of spring, you might say. I do like the fact that you’ve done this song with only Michael Webster on piano, Larry on acoustic bass, and you on acoustic guitar. It’s just that you end it all way too soon. I’d have loved at least an extra verse.
Let’s talk about it over fish tacos in Pescadero, why don’t we? Or cocktails and light snacks at Venus Spirits in Santa Cruz. Take your pick. Here’s to more bright futures for us all! COVID-19 can’t be the end of the story, can it? I doubt it, but I have been wrong before.
Time to wrap this post up. Thanks, friend Tracy, again for letting me listen – and for helping me once more to think.