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Standing at the Crossroads of Hell

by Nico Versluys 11 months ago in album reviews

Revisiting Tracy Chapman’s Crossroads

Robert Johnson sold his soul at a crossroads in Mississippi. About 70 years later, Tracy Chapman was asked to do the same after roaring success gained from the brilliance of that song (you know which one…..) and subsequent self titled debut. Tracy not only declined to sell hers, she wrote a record about why she wouldn’t, why she couldn’t. Souls, according to her, are to be treasured, nurtured and most of all protected.

Some people are made for stardom. They’re the wrong shape at the right time and so we pay to see more of them. Others, not so much. Those others can’t help but show you their gift, yet need to shrink away from its hefty afflictions..... Those ones break your heart and then apologise for it.

They say she’s a lesbian. They say she’s significant. They say she gave up. Tracy herself says as little as possible. At least in public. At least to those who will never listen, those who’s only wish is to take… On her second record, she leaves it all wide open, with a set of delicate, gorgeous and brilliant songs, her soul there for you to feel, but never take.

From the first track Crossroads, the jig is up.

“All you folks think you own my life

But you never made any sacrifice

Demons they are on my trail

I'm standing at the crossroads of hell

I look to the left I look to the right

There're hands that grab me on every side”

The industry, as we all know loves to chew up and destroy those souls so delicate, they sing their pain to us, (Amy Winehouse, anyone?) They do this as they have no choice. They do this so we can make sense of our own pain. This helps us to find our way. Tracy is making a peaceful, defiant stand here, she knows what they’re trying to do.

“You think money rules when all else fails

Go sell your soul and keep your shell…”

The personal is the political in a dance to empowerment that fights its way through our everyday. Tracy knows this, and so this record has a series of focus pulls, in and out. From the world weary defiance of the title track, she kisses off in Bridges. “Let me take this time to set the record straight” she says. “Let me take this time to try and make it right” she aches. And frankly, if it didn’t work Tracy, they just plain weren’t worth it. There’s a rallying cry at the midpoint where that honeyed, tremulous burr of a voice hits you right in the soul, howling “anybody tell you that?”, over and over…

She pulls out to a rightfully joyous tribute to the mighty Mandela, Freedom Now. She wants it for us all, she wants it now. It pains me to type this at a time where this still couldn’t be further from the truth, yet when she sings “let us all be free free free free…” I want it so so so bad. It melts all cynicism. It strokes it into me. The Fight.

We keep the focus out as she reminds us of the bodies on which we stand in this Material World. (Here, the mic is gently prised from Madonna’s hands.)

“You in your fancy

Material world

Don't see the links of chain

Binding blood”

I love that declamatory use of the word fancy. Just how ‘fancy’ can you be when 5 billion folks are broken so we can have all of the things? I mean, come on…..

We pull back in and we’re bringing our broken hearts to a reminder. Be Careful of My Heart. We’re back to that plaintive, trademark girl and her guitar thing and man… I want to run to her and ask her who did this to her and tell her about all of the girls that did it to me and how this song reminds me that I hold out the same hope. The hope that…

“One day I just might love again

One day some sweet smile might turn my head

One day I just might give all myself away”

Then we head underground, to the forgotten towns, the places left behind.

In Subcity “life is hard”. The song, as warm and delicate as a daffodil on a sunny spring day, albeit one where the smell of those we can’t see rises up to despoil our delicate, pampered noses and remind us that we’ll never be on the right side of anything until we’re all on the right side of everything. And there again, a delicate line, the voice croons, the honey on the razor blade, she sings their song….

“Won't you please, please give Mr President my honest regards

For disregarding me…”

We move back into her fierce, unbounded will, defiant, yet never broken. She’s Born to Fight and she wants you to know while making your hips snake and your voice soar so you can be with her and shake your tiny fists too. Be with us all as we refuse to hold back. We declaim politely, with the warmest groove…

“I won't let down my guard

And I was born to fight

I ain't been knocked down yet

I was born to fight

Baby, I’m the surest bet”

Then it’s A Hundred Years and again, I want to know who did this to her. I’m left wondering if the record coincided with the kind of break up that tears you asunder and has happened at the worst time. The world wants all of you and yet you can’t have that one thing you need and so you are left with no choice but to write it all down and show everyone, but mostly that one, that person, just what it is that they’ve done.

“Here I am I'm knowing

That I would do most anything

If you keep on loving me


We can’t pull the focus out for the next song because we’re not done telling that person yet. This Time, she says. This time will be different. This time “I won’t show I’m vulnerable”, this time “I won’t give in first.” And we are sweetly bludgeoned into understanding that the ones who love the most are most often the ones who are left with the least.

And we end where we started, yet with a final admonishment to those who still wish to take that final piece of her and Tracy reminds us why she’s like this. Why she stood at the Crossroads and flatly (but you have to think, with perfect poise and delicate politeness), resoundingly refused to give it up. Because All That You Have is Your Soul.

“Don't be tempted by the shiny apple

Don't you eat of a bitter fruit

Hunger only for a taste of justice

Hunger only for a world of truth

Cause all that you have is your soul”

I found a copy of this record on cassette in my house more than 30 years ago, left behind by one of the many crazies and stragglers my brothers hung out with and I played it out of curiosity. I was the worst kind of music snob back then (I’m the best kind now) and I was as cynical as all those who passed it by the first time. (To be fair, it did sell plenty though less than what the still magnificent, but in my opinion lesser first record did.) It carved a groove in me that has never left and it’s been a joy to revisit it for you here. If you’ve never listened to it, I implore you to put all judgement to one side, cock a snook at the context and listen to a woman sing you her truth so warmly, with such grace I can’t believe the world didn’t really listen, but I hope you take the opportunity to now.

album reviews

Nico Versluys

Nico is a young writer in a middle aged Northern Englishman's body who just wants to write that line that makes those who read it lie down and not get back up again. He has no pets, many friends and more than enough shoes, thank you.

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