Beth Nielsen Chapman: Look
Sound/Style: well-crafted, low-key adult pop
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Beth Nielsen Chapman, who has written hit songs for the likes of Willie Nelson and Faith Hill, was initially influenced by the so-called "sensitive" singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s, which included James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Carole King. Chapman perhaps most closely resembles King, best known as a writer of hits for other artists and a modestly talented vocalist with a gift for tapping into universally feminine emotions.
Chapman tends toward the sentimental and can bring a lump to the listener’s throat when singing about a return to one’s hometown or a rediscovered friend from school days. Yet her knack for detail and dimensionality typically keeps her more romantic fare from becoming too saccharine. "Life Holds On," from her 1990 debut, remains a striking affirmation of the force within all that God creates, astutely noting the way grass worms its way through concrete. She hit a career high with the sublime "Sand And Water," a non-hit but a fathoms-deep therapeutic masterpiece that addresses life, eternity and the death of her spouse. The songwriter has long trod a fine line between authentic artistry and commercial craftsmanship and has turned out a number of enjoyable albums of light yet substantial adult pop (perhaps only Sand And Water approaches the full range of her artistic potential).
Her latest, Look, skews more heavily toward the commercial side. The songs are solidly built, though not her best work. The disc deals heavily with relationships but does so with a balance not frequently heard in mainstream material. She aligns the scales on the album’s opener, "Trying To Love You," a mid-tempo number as forthcoming about love’s agonies and frustrations as it is about the eventual payoff of a long-term commitment. "The Reason," co-written with faith-based folkie David Wilcox, poignantly addresses the challenges of intimacy and butts up against romantic myths with the potent couplet "love contains a promise and a lie/it paints those blue and sunny skies. "Right Back Into The Feeling" evens the score, plunging headlong into the giddy exhilaration of new romance, which makes it the disc’s most likely track for mass appeal – something Chapman has yet to accomplish under her own name. The song’s airplay potential is maximized by the appearance of Michael McDonald, Chapman’s duet partner on two tracks. McDonald adds soulful seasoning on the R&B-flavored tune, though he’s a mismatch on "Time Won’t Tell," a country-flavored offering that is a bit out of place amidst its more pop-sounding counterparts.
Chapman’s grasp of pop, however, extends beyond the strictly contemporary, which can be heard on the classic styling of "Look" and the gorgeously lilting "Your Love Stays." Anyone (particularly female) who’s ever fallen out with a friend or relative will hear the truth resonate in "Who We Are," which bears the bittersweet trademark of Chapman’s most affecting work. The Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers joins Chapman on the song, which mercifully gives others – as well as ourselves – the benefit of the doubt when human nature’s nastier side emerges.
With the exception of the percussion-heavy, reggae-tinged "Free," the album contains few up-tempo moments, making it a somewhat anemic listen from beginning to end. But if you’re a tender-hearted type who’s ready to just sit and absorb, take some time to peek in on Look.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.