If Harry Chapin's latest album, Dance Band on the Titanic," (Elektra SOE 801, two records) is any indication of the state fo his art, then fans may rest assured. His musical/poetic expression has never been better, his growth as a singer-songwriter never more obvious. Chapin has managed to avoid a major pitfall of singer-songwriters (Neil Diamond, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, to name a few) who get sot stuck in the grooves of their individual sounds that new songs are too reminiscent of past hits. What may have served beautifully, at first, to distinguish a new sound - such as an unexpected muscial interval, modulation or resolution - becomes all too predictable.
Chapin's music can't be pigeonholed so easily. Though he does have a predictable element, it is less in his music and lyrics and more in the form his artistic expression takes. Most of his songs are character vignettes revealed through a story or narration and, as such, really belong to the ballad tradition. He is the Edwin Arlington Robinson of rock music, offering his equivalents of Miniver Cheevy and Richard Cory in an array of meaningful sketches of people about whom we care because they are so terribly vulnerable and unmistakably human.
On this two-record album. Chapin continues to wax poetic and philosophical. The title cut, "Dance Band on the Titanic," sets the context for ensuing songs. The Titanic can be viewed as a microcosm, the songs are the various life stories of some of the passengers, all striving in the face of final and inexorable down and trying to hold "this wistful notion that the journey is worthwhile. They say that [WORD ILLEGIBLE] while Rome burged up/well I'll be strumming as the ship goes down."
At the album's end, the explicitly autobiographical. "There Only was One Choice," the underlying themes of ambivalence and self-doubt about career and life choices reach their climax. It's a lament for the loss of youthful idealism and for the compromises one is forced to make as success comes into conflict with a preferred lifestyle. But the song ends with a realization that after all, there was only one choice - on that had to be made - and it suggests that through the next generation the cyclical pattern of life and life's choices will continue.
Most of the songs on the album revolve around two related sets of feelings: of something lost ("Manhood," "We Grew Up Separately." "Why Should People Stay the Same") of something impossible to attain ("Mismatch," "I Wonder What Happened to Him," "Country Dreams," "I Did if For You, Jane," "Paint a Picture of Yourself"). "My Old Lady" is a tour de force of feminist one-upwomanship. The MCP (Male Chauvinist Pig) of this song is befuddled: "You see, my old lady took herself a young man last night/It got me crazy when she said Baby don't you get uptight." The humor is self-directed, and the self-mocking tone is further captured by the funky sound - kind of a cross between a jug band and a calliope. The result, musically, is a clownish indignation; and the irony is complete.
Chapin's backup sound has changed over the years from a simple acoustic guitar and light piano to an array of instruments including piano, cello, electric guitars, bass guitar and drums. The result on this album is a more rhythmically balanced, fuller sound. With the material from this album added to his repertoire, Chapin in concert can only be better.