Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Music: Are you ready for that? Driving your car down a desert highway listening to the seventies and eighties rise like zombies from the rippling sand? I hope so.

Mimsy Review: Crossroads

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 18, 2002

Don’t be tempted by the shiny apple. Don’t you eat of the bitter fruit. Hunger only for a taste of justice. Hunger only for the truth, cause all that you have is your soul.

When Crossroads came out, I was spending a year in Hollywood for tax reasons. “Fast Car” (from her first album) and the songs from this album were everywhere. I remember discussing it with a friend’s sister who I’d cajoled into giving me a ride back from LAX.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
ArtistTracy Chapman
Year1989
Length43 minutes
Album Rating8
1. Crossroads 4:11
2. Bridges 5:24
3. Freedom Now 4:02
4. Material World 3:02
5. Be Careful of My Heart 4:39
6. Subcity 5:09
7. Born to Fight 2:46
8. A Hundred Years 4:20
9. This Time 3:42
10. All That You Have Is Your Soul 5:16

Crossroads is Tracy Chapman’s second album, and it cemented her place as a powerful songwriter and singer. In fact, in 1989 in Hollywood I heard so much of this album that I thought at the time it was her debut album. It was one of the first compact discs I purchased, before I even had a compact disc player. The highlight of the album, for me, is “All That You Have is Your Soul,” plaintive advice from the older generation to the younger, that amid all the changes that woman’s rights and minority rights have gone through, there remains only one constant.

This album also has one of my favorite mis-heard lyrics: “All you folks think you own my life; 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, hand me a grammy on the other side.”

It’s actually, “hands that grab me on every side”. But her title song really does sound like its about Hollywood and the record industry. “All you folks think I got my price, at which I’ll sell all that is mine. You think money rules, and all else fails. I’m trying to protect what I keep inside.” It’s a strange paradox in any such industry: once an artist has proven that her vision can be a commercially successful one, she’s got a lot more pressure on her to conform to the status quo’s idea of commercial success. She follows “Crossroads” with “Bridges”,which has to be one of the most anti-commercial love songs I’ve heard, both melodically and lyrically.

Rolling Stone calls her “one of the most socially relevant songwriters of our time”, but while that title is often the kiss of death as far as quality of writing is concerned, Tracy Chapman’s writing is on the level of such previous relevant leaders as Bob Dylan. There is a similar combination of playfulness and seriousness in her lyrics. Chapman, with her debut album in 1988, came to the fore at the tail end of a renaissance of extra-ordinarily good, vaguely folky, relevant female singer/songwriters heralded by Suzanne Vega in 1985. Others from that time include Michelle Shocked (1986/1988) and the Indigo Girls (1987), all incredible artists.

In keeping with this “socially relevant” label, her next song is “Freedom Now”, ostensibly about Nelson Mandela, but much more about the invisible prisons we carry with us when we think we’ve got choices. “Every day is born a man who hates what he can’t understand... and he thinks he’s free.” We’re fools, all of us, we have all done wrong to someone, but if we “give the man release... and set our conscience free” even a fool can have his day. She sings a similar theme in “Material World”: “You in your fancy material world don’t see the links of chain binding blood.” The “whole man-made white world” is a prison; it masters us, and rips us from our roots. In place of the deep faith in our hearts we erect a new god, a god of money and success, a god in the image of our own supreme, upwardly-mobile selves.

“Be Careful of My Heart” is a beautiful love song, with undertones of a wider concern about trust, trust in “all the sweet things that they say”. On one level it’s about men and women, but given its placement in this album may also be about underclass and overclass: “be careful of my heart, it just might break and send some splinters flying.”

“Subcity” is a beautiful melody with a pointed and sharp cry, and perhaps the least allegorical of all the songs. It sounds like a litany of both Republican and Democratic disregard for the poorest of the poor of our cities. The “Mr. President” she’s talking about here is either Ronald Reagan or George Bush (or both). Reagan was certainly the most pointed in his disregard for the poor, but George Bush had his own moments. It wasn’t so much an active dislike as a disregard, a lack of knowledge that the subcity even existed. It was endemic at that time, across mainstream party lines. Where George Bush had not set foot in a grocery store for years and didn’t even know bar code scanners existed, his opponent Dukakis wanted to fight the homeless problem by building more houses for middle-income families because for him the homeless problem was too many people living in apartments instead of homes.

But mankind was “Born to Fight”, and hasn’t been knocked down yet. If there’s any sure bet, it is that someday the subcity will rise up and take its own back.

“A Hundred Years” is a strange little song about a needy lover, almost stalking her ex-boyfriend. He says he won’t come back to her, and she calls everyone in town that she thinks he knows in order to convince him to come back. It isn’t going to work, and she knows it, sort of. She’ll suffer for “a little longer” and then “go find someone to worry about me, as much as I worry about you”. But we know she won’t, she’ll find someone else to worry about, someone else to be jealous about, someone else to drive away and then stalk. She knows better, and sings about it in “This Time”, where she may have learned her lesson. If she shows herself vulnerable, if she lets emotions run wild, then she’s no longer in control, and he knows it. She’s got to love herself, and treat herself right, and if she can “make you say that you love me first, you’ll be the one with the most to lose tonight”. It’s the predecessor-in-song to “The Tao of Steve”. It’s a conundrum that no one really answers: if you love someone, you have to occasionally act as if you don’t. Otherwise, they’ll leave you.

But the highlight of Crossroads is, as I said earlier, “All That You Have is Your Soul”. The singer’s mother tells her the one important truth in life, she says that she was a young girl once, she thought she’d make history, but she got caught up trying to possess another person, but making babies didn’t do that. She couldn’t possess the father, and she couldn’t even possess the children. Everyone leaves eventually. You can’t beat the system if you use the system. If you use the system, the system uses you, and then, as a woman, making babies will be the best that you can do, because that’s what the system says. All that you have is your soul, and you must not exchange that for any price, no matter how many baubles the system tries to bribe you with.

This is a very good album, fascinating to listen to on many levels, and I highly recommend it.

Crossroads

Tracy Chapman

Recommendation: Purchase Now!

If you enjoyed Crossroads…

If you enjoy Tracy Chapman, you might also be interested in Matters of the Heart.