Offering no real surprises, Tracy Chapman’s eighth album, Our Bright Future, finds the acclaimed singer-songwriter tempering the social conscience that has been her trademark with guarded, cautious optimism. Though she’s written and performed countless songs with a similar sound and message as “Thinking of You” and “Something to See (No War),” it’s hard to fault Chapman for staying within her comfort zone: She knows exactly what her strengths are, and her late-career work shows a more consistent tone and is more subtle, graceful and insightful than that of similar acts like Shawn Colvin and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Though Future rarely rises above the volume of coffee-shop conversation or kicks with anything harder than a slight midtempo shuffle, it’s never less than a lovely, pleasant listen. Chapman satirizes modern celebrity culture in the jazz-inflected phrasings of the witty “I Did It All,” while “Save Us All” subverts dogmatic religious groupthink in the form of a low-key gospel number. The hopefulness of the album’s political songs carries over into its songs about personal relationships, with Chapman impressively capturing multiple emotional shades in the wordless chorus of opener “Sing for You” and keeping her fingers crossed that a prospective lover will find her worth it even as she discloses that “there are strings attached” on standout “Conditional.” Chapman’s songwriting is as sharp as ever, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the album’s production is so lifeless. Still, the fundamental sense of hope that informs the record gives Our Bright Future an of-the-moment timeliness that works to overcome its other shortcomings.
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