Jen Chapin is never going to be a giant pop star. Not in this era anyway. She writes about love, sure, but the grown-up kind. Her songs have groove, no doubt, but it’s supplied by a band stocked with jazz players. Her voice is arresting and strong, you bet, but it’s laced with vinegar and personality, like the voice of someone you hear live in a bar, not mediated by a world of effects.
Which is to say, Jen Chapin might have been a giant pop star in 1975 when sing-songwriters like Joni Mitchell were striking gold with adult songs shot through with jazzy sophistication. It’s pretty hard to imagine Chapin at the MTV Awards show getting press—and that’s why many of us are ecstatic to hear a new and superb recording from this mature pop singer. She’s ours and that’s the way it is going to be. Please let her flourish as a not-too-famous artist who keeps making records as wondrous as Reckoning.
Chapin has been at this for about 15 years, and her 2004 record Linger was so good that I half-expected her to occupy the fruitful territory of folks like Shawn Colvin or Bonnie Raitt,d adult singers who have radio hits despite the direction of the market these days. Her style is hyphenated enough, however—some kind of soul-pop-folk-jazz thing—that the years following Linger were marked just by great music rather than hits. A wholly mature set of originals called Ready in 2006. A set of radical rock covers (Light of Mine, 2008). A disc of spare and jazzy Stevie Wonder covers (Revisions, 2009).
Through all this work, Chapin has boasted a voice that is sweet but with a raspy edge that she controls with care. Her songs range from reggae to folk, from soul to confessional. And everything sounds smart, wise, powerful, and rich in story detail.
Reckoning deepens every vein of Chapin’s art. The singing has never been clearer or richer in emotion. The songs are lush with images and melodic hooks. The arrangements take advantage of her astonishing jazz band but also include superb pop flourishes that include horns, backing vocals, keyboard fills, and plenty of punchy pop groove.
“Feed Your Baby”, for example, moves with a hiply syncopated drum feel, jaunty guitars (and a set of subtle synth squiggles on the bridge), but the lyrics are about the struggle of a mother to feed her child under modern economic conditions. This is classic Chapin: a politically and social aware song that happens to groove like crazy.
Many of the tunes on Reckoning are incisive story-songs that take a serious and unflinching look at marriage or raising children. They are nearly all beautiful and musically stirring, but the words force you to pull back and feel something. The opener, “It’s All Right”, paints a picture of “bouncing checks and another fight”, nights when “plump drops fall from the ceiling / Dripping down on our bed”. The narrator addresses her partner with a raw sense of reality but also loving hope: “All things grow toward the light, I know”. The finger snaps, the funky acoustic bass line from Chapin’s actual husband, Stephan Crump, and the subtle string arrangement make this song as magical as it is serious.
“Go Away” has a defiant sound to it: “I love when you go away / I get to clean up the mess you made”, but as the lyrics develop over the increasingly dense rock arrangement, it seems like the tune is about a mother getting a glimpse of freedom from her loved child rather than a tale of romantic collapse. “Do I feel guilty? Not really. I watch your breath rise and fall in your sleep each night”. But the song (and the arrangement, which climaxes with rock guitars blending with bells and Farfisa organ) is canny enough that it might be funny or slightly angry—much like everyone’s experience as a parent or wife/husband. A smart-great song.
The gentler side of Reckoning is also remarkable. “Let It Show” is recorded here for the second time, and this simple piece of advice that Chapin wrote for her son Maceo (“The one thing you should know / Find your joy and let it show”) is so catchy that it really should make it on the radio. This song starts from simple folk guitar strumming two chords, but it develops into something perfect and magical: with little bits of organ floating in, with Wurlitzer piano shimmering and glockenspiel notes picking out harmonic glitters, with Martha Redbone’s backing vocals creating perfect shadows. Wow.
I also love the tone poem, “Paris”, which presents what seems like a mystical memory of a time in the past when something special happened. The music evokes the great Simon and Garfunkel records without seeming like a copy. Or how about the blue-tinged title track that uses a flute-like Mellotron line and a sumptuous guitar solo by Jamie Fox to seduce your ears?
Chapin and Crump are also not afraid to make some of these songs complex like the great work of brilliant songwriters like Paul Simon or Steely Dan’s Becker & Fagen. “Spare Love (Not Fair)” begins with a duel guitar line that winds in an arcing shape before Chapin joins in counterpoint, all before the band groove sets in. And there’s harp too—yup. The closer on this ambitious record is called “Gospel”, a song that imagines a better world being possible. Again, the arrangement builds from simplicity (an off-center drum and bass groove that allows Chapin to sing a simple blues melody) to great complexity, with a significant harmonized chorus, a piece of spoken-word recitation, Hammond organ and celeste, and then a sensuous trumpet solo from Ambrose Akinmusire on the long out-chorus.
Jen Chapin has made one of best adult pop records of the year. Are adults still buying records? Is anyone? If your taste runs to rich lyrics, ingenious but subtle arrangements, and soulful singing, then Reckoning is for you. It deserves an audience wider than the one that already knows Chapin’s name. Her time—rightfully, at least—is here.