chapmanTracy Chapman’s self-titled first album, released in the spring of 1988, helped revive interest in folk-influenced singer-songwriters, a genre that fell out of favour after the first half of the 1970s. The best examples are concentrated and detailed, but also very melodic and accessible. Take “Baby Can I Hold You” which, appropriately for a song about the failure of words, uses its own very economically. The three verses are tightly structured around three phrases that the unnamed subject of the song “can’t say”. They are “sorry”, “forgive me” and “I love you”. The six words that can be said – “baby can I hold you tonight” – are placed in the chorus and suggest that there are ways of expressing emotion that go beyond the verbal. However, they may not be enough, or may even be the wrong words. The song slips into the past tense to reveal that this relationship failed. “Maybe if I’d told you the right words/At the right time/You’d be mine”. And we hear that the problem is an ongoing one, on both sides: “Years gone by and still/Words don’t come easily”. That’s about it – the sum total of all the words used.

Musically, the song is just as tight, relying mostly on the three most common chords – D major (the tonic) G major (the subdominant) and A major (the dominant). But simple means can be used to great effect. Chapman always uses the song’s main “wild card” chord – the supertonic (E minor with the hint of a ninth) – on the recurring two lines that express the most uncertainty (“can’t say” and “don’t come easily”), where it has the effect of delaying the inevitable resolution to the strong dominant and tonic chords. The first time the supertonic is used as a weaker alternative to the subdominant and leads straight to the dominant (albeit one with a suspended fourth, a further delaying tactic). The second time it’s used, the supertonic is diverted to the subdominant before it gets to the dominant (as the “unsayable” phrases of each verse are repeated twice), only then resolving onto the tonic. In a way this is all too obvious to need explanation, and takes longer to read than to listen to. But I think it is worth spelling out, as in the end it has a lot to do with why the song feels so satisfactory.