Tracy Chapman's songs are comfort food for the eternally dejected. With her dusky voice and spare arrangements, the former street busker has built a career on tales of heartache and pain ("Fast Car," "Give Me One Reason"), little of it more starkly expressed than on Let It Rain, her sixth studio album.
Reminiscent of Chapman's stripped-down, self-titled 1988 debut, the album -- co-produced by longtime PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish -- sets the singer's quavering voice against a hazy backing that provides warmth to her often chilling lyrics. Chapman's band has constantly evolved, but the latest batch of eclectic hired guns -- Joey Waronker (Beck), pedal steel player Greg Leisz (Grant Lee Buffalo), multi-instrumentalist Joe Gore and bassist Larry Taylor (Tom Waits) -- float her simple folk arrangements into a more ethereal realm on songs such as the funereal "I Am Yours" and "Happy," a whispered dirge that sounds anything but.
With lazy lap steel and faint, sonar beeping guitars, "Another Sun" evokes the dreamy burble of Beck's Sea Change -- with the despondent lyrics to match. That is, until "In the Dark," which strips the music until it evokes the faint scratch of a record on the run-out groove. Grafting a skeletal trip-hop beat onto a lyric about things that go bump (and scratch) in the night, the story of secret abuse is punctuated by the ebb and flow of Chapman's moaning backing vocals. "Hard Wired" bends back and forth between Gillian Welch-style old-timey folk and a futuristic parable about data-mining brains, reality TV and the loss of privacy in a surveillance society. "We've got a box to put in your brain/Hard-wired for downloading," Chapman sings over banjo, accordion and dobro.
As painful as it sounds, Chapman is again at her best when things are at their worst.