[1 June 2010]
Critics condemned the Beatles proclaiming “All You Need Is Love” as an idealistic panacea for the planet’s ills. But believers found strength and comfort in the simple words of wisdom, and imagined love could save the Earth. Forty years later, the concept that love can redeem the world seems like an outdated ‘60s notion. The globe has become a more complex and dangerous place. Preaching love seems a joke at best, or some kind of conservative Christian answer to a secular or Muslim threat to conventional American values.
Beth Nielsen Chapman expresses her belief in love over and over again in her latest record, appropriately entitled Back to Love. Now I am as big a cynic as the next person, and as far from Christian as any Jewish American you will ever meet, but Chapman’s passion and belief make me a believer for the three or four minutes of each song on the album. She writes and sings from heart. Chapman’s not trying to convert anybody to any particular dogma. She’s just putting her own feelings and experiences into musical expression.
This can be dumb. When she sings, “If we just remember kindness / Would it matter who is right”, one wants to yell, “Hell yes, it does” back at her. Isn’t being right important? Intellectually, of course. But we all know that responding to violence with more violence invariably leads to even more violence, no matter who is right. This track ends with her proclaiming the song’s title, “Hallelujah”, as she proclaims the wisdom of “sweet love.” The heart can be stronger than the head when if comes to resolution and redemption.
Chapman is no dummy. She understands the dangers of romanticizing instead of thinking. She addresses the topic directly on “Shadows”, where she invokes Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and sings of the importance of seeing life’s difficulties from more than one perspective. Sure, it may be easy to sing that love can conquer all when everything is going well, but Chapman, who has survived cancer and the death of a spouse, understands there are no easy answers. As the title of another song reminds us, sometimes one needs “More Than Love”. That doesn’t lessen the importance of love. In fact its very fallibility endows it with even greater meaning.
This discussion of lyrics and philosophy ignores Chapman’s greatest strength, She writes great pop hooks on which to hang her words. She’s the songwriter behind hits like Faith Hill’s “This Kiss” and has written songs for stars like Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Waylon Jennings, and many others. She herself cracked the Top 20 Adult Contemporary charts back in the ‘90s with tunes like “Walk My Way”, “All I Have”, and “I Keep Coming Back to You.” Each of the 11 cuts on the new album sounds like it could be a potential hit for Chapman or anyone else savvy enough to record it (Bonnie Raitt, are you listening?). Especially noteworthy are the bluesy “Even As It All Goes By” and the tender “I Need You Love”. They are sweet, accessible, and catchy, begging the listener to sing along.
Maybe love is not the answer, but Chapman’s melodious calls for love make one at least consider the option. In these crazy days of war, recession, and such, the few minutes of respite her songs provide offer a welcome relief. They make one smile. What more can one ask from a pop tune?