THE ONE AFTER THE BIG ONE: Beth Nielsen Chapman, SAND AND WATER
Long a songwriter’s songwriter, Beth Nielsen Chapman seemed to be on the cusp of greater renown with her self-titled 1991 album and 1993’s YOU HOLD THE KEY, both of which had spawned Adult Contemporary hits in “All I Have,” “That’s the Easy Part” (both from the former) and the Paul Carrack duet “In the Time It Takes” (from the latter). She had also penned hits for Willie Nelson ("Nothing I Can Do About It Now"), Trisha Yearwood (“Down on My Knees”) and Lorrie Morgan (“Five Minutes”), among others. YOU HOLD THE KEY, though a minor sales success, had nonetheless been her biggest record to date.
Then tragedy befell her – her husband Ernest contracted cancer and died from it in 1994, and Chapman did not release another record for three years after. She channeled that experience into 1997’s SAND AND WATER, and emerged from it all with a singular artistic statement, and one of the most heartfelt and moving records you’re ever likely to hear.
“The Color of Roses,” which begins the record, finds Chapman imagining a dream in which her husband returns to her – a circumstance she repeats throughout the record, even while recognizing the source of her grief in his absence. “It's so hard to touch what is out of our hands,” she sings, “To know and to trust what the heart understands.” Her heart reaches for him again in “Beyond the Blue,” where she imagines another meeting – “I'm gonna meet you there / On the outskirts of the sky.” The happiness of that moment can also be heard in the music – up-tempo, percussion-heavy, coming and receding in waves.
The greater mood of the record is one of bittersweet resignation. The title track muses on the cycle of life and death as just a single aspect of greater natural forces – “Solid stone is just sand and water, baby / Sand and water and a million years gone by.” Chapman lets loose her sorrow in “Nobody Knows But You,” but still feels the presence of her beloved close by. “I'll cry this empty canyon / An ocean full of tears,” she sings. “And I won't stop believing / That your love is always near.”
On the album-closing “Say Goodnight,” Chapman imagines her husband comforting her, reaching out to her when she can no longer reach out to him. It is a heartbreaking thing to hear, yet simultaneously consoling. “You are everything you want to be,” she imagines him saying, “So just let your heart reach out to me / I'll be right by your side.” There’s a modulation after those lines, a subtle yet dramatic change in key that lets the song burst open, like a flower to sunlight. It’s the most exquisite moment on a record full of exquisite moments.
Beth Nielsen Chapman has made many records since SAND AND WATER; she’s penned a bunch of hits for other artists in the ensuing years, as well. There’s something about this album, though, that eclipses it all; it is at once deeply personal and completely universal, and if you allow it to work its magic on you, it will never let you go.