Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review of Harry Chapin's "Verities & Balderdash"

I posted this review earlier this afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: "Something's burning somewhere. Does anybody care?"

Although he's been somewhat forgotten today, folk singer Harry Chapin was important in his day, both as an artist and as a social activist heavily involved in raising money and awareness for world hunger issues. Musically, he was renowned for his storytelling -- his songs depicted memorable characters, some noble, many flawed, but all recognizably human. Verities & Balderdash (1974), his fourth studio album, was arguably his masterpiece.

Chapin entered the public consciousness in 1972 with the hit single "Taxi", which reached #24 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Over the course of the next few years, his fame grew, thanks to a series of minor hit singles and to a huge amount of American FM radio airplay. His first and third albums, Heads & Tails (1972) and Short Stories (1973) were both quite successful (although his second, Sniper and Other Love Songs (1972) was much less popular). However, Verities & Balderdash took Chapin's career to a whole new level, reaching #4 on the Billboard album charts, and eventually going double platinum, propelled in large part by the #1 hit single, "Cats in the Cradle".

"Cats in the Cradle" is elegant in its simplicity. Driven mostly by a quietly picked acoustic guitar, and sung in first person (as many of Chapin's songs are), it follows the relationship between a well-meaning but always-too-busy father and his son, from the cradle almost to the grave. With its nursery-rhyme-like chorus of "The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon/Little boy blue and the man in the moon" acting as a punctuation mark, we follow the various stages of their lives, from the boy's birth ("But there were trains to catch and bills to pay"), through his toddler years ("He learned to walk while I was away"), to his childhood, where Dad can never quite find the time to even stop for a simple game of catch. By the end of the song, the singer is a lonely old man, and of course, the tables have turned -- now it's his son who can never find the time for him. What makes the song so heartbreaking is that neither the father nor the son seem like bad people. Dad just never slowed down long enough to get his priorities straight, and his son (mistakenly) learned what was most important in life from watching Dad's example.

While this single doubtlessly spurred the sales of the album, it would be a mistake to think that it's all that Verities has to offer. There are nine songs here in all, and each, in its own way, is a major or minor gem. "I Want to Learn a Love Song", which was also released as a single, is sung from the viewpoint of a young guitar teacher who falls in love with the woman whose husband hired him to teach her to play guitar. It's allegedly the story of how Chapin first met his wife Sandy. 

The heart of the album, however, might be "What Made America Famous?", which was released as a promotional single. It's a hokey-but-effective story about disparate peoples coming together. It follows the conflict between the straight-laced inhabitants of a nameless small town and the "hippies", of whom Chapin's protagonist is a member. Both groups go out of their way to antagonize one another, until one night, a fire breaks out in the broken down slum building where the hippies and other outcasts live. Most of the volunteer firemen are in no rush to rescue their tormentors, except for one nameless man, a middle-aged, overweight plumber, who stands up to his friends and takes the truck out to rescue the others. Yes, the song is sentimental and emotionally manipulative. It's also delightfully effective. The plumber's heroism doesn't require massive physical strength or super-hero-like toughness -- just the emotional courage to stand up and do the right thing, even when those around you would have you do otherwise. The track is a monument to the kind of country (and world) that Chapin dreamed of, where people would put aside their differences to help one another. It's a dream that still resonates today.

There are also a pair of songs here that demonstrate Chapin's sense of humor. The first, entitled "30,000 Pounds of Bananas", is the funniest song about a horrendous and deadly automotive wreck you'll ever hear. The second, "Six String Orchestra", gives him the opportunity to poke some fun at his own musical shortcomings: "I'd play at local talent nights/I'd finish, they'd applaud/Some called it muffled laughter/I just figured they were awed."

The album is rounded out by another trio of character studies and a love song. "Shooting Star" is the strange tale of a charismatic crazy man and the woman whose love grounds him, while "Vacancy" tells the story of a clerk who lives vicariously through the couples who stop at his motel. "Halfway to Heaven" finds its nameless middle-aged protagonist feeling cheated by the changing societal values around him, as he prepares to embark on an extramarital affair with his secretary. Finally, "She Sings Songs Without Words" has Chapin extolling the many mystical virtues of the woman he's in love with: "She knows more of love than the poets can say/And her eyes offer something that won't go away".

Harry Chapin died tragically in 1981, ironically (considering the story in "30,000 Pounds of Bananas") in a car wreck of his own. He was only 38 years old. Many of his singer/songwriter contemporaries from the 1970s are now considered respected elder statesmen, and are still making music today. As sad as it is that he was taken so young, he at least left behind him an impressive body of work. If you find yourself interested in exploring this rich legacy, Verities & Balderdash is as good a place as any to start.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars