Album of the Week, August 4: Suzanne Vega

SV2CoverSuzanne Vega was raised in Spanish Harlem on the Upper West Side of New York City and absorbed significant artistic and cultural diversity growing up. She wrote her first songs and poems as a teen and built on this experience in college, performing at small clubs and coffee houses in Greenwich Village. Her distinct sound and clever observations garnered her a firm fan base. Her influences — Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian — were clear but only as a part of the rich music she crafted.

She became part of the Fast Folk community and that exposure helped her get a major label deal before she was 25. Signing to A&M, she assembled existing and new material to produce a beautiful, insightful debut album. The music is based on her clear vocals and smart lyrics, with a simple folky backdrop. Vega and her producers skillfully and sparingly add synthesizers and other electronic embellishments that create a modern folk sound that honors its foundations but presents a more complex, textured sound.

Title Suzanne Vega
Act Suzanne Vega
Label A & M Release Date May 1985
Producer Lenny Kaye and Steve Addabo
U.S. Chart  91 U.K. Chart  11
Tracks
  1. Cracking
  2. Freeze Tag
  3. Marlene On the Wall
  4. Small Blue Thing
  5. Straight Lines
  6. Undertow
  7. Some Journey
  8. The Queen and the Soldier
  9. Knight Moves
  10. Neighborhood Girls

The albums opener, Cracking, starts off with simple acoustic guitar and the line “It’s a one time thing, it just happens a lot.” That observation sets up the tensions that drive the album as Vega looks at personal strengths, insecurities, and relationships. The vocal is as much spoken as sung, hearkening to her Cohen influences. Freeze Tag follows a similar pattern, using the children’s game as a metaphor for adult interactions. The sense of chill in these songs is fragile and unifying, showing how people often buffer themselves in their relationships.

Marlene On the Wall is one of the strongest tracks, opening with the stark declaration “Even if I am in love with you.” The singer draws strength from a poster of Marlene Dietrich on her wall, observing her romantic adventures and mishaps. The tempo is much faster, with Vega’s nearly breathless delivery fitting the lyrical themes nicely. (The song was also a hit in the UK, starting a career there that has been more consistently successful than her commercial performance at home.)

Small Blue Thing is something of a policy statement for the album, noting “I am cool and blue and curious; I never blink.” Vega’s razor-sharp observations and lyrical honesty certainly reflect that claim. The song is small and quiet but haunting, showing a different kind of strength than Marlene. Straight Lines is yet another kind of strength, the tale of a woman who declares her independence. Using the simple but meaningful act of cutting off her hair as a metaphor for reinvention, Vega creates a compelling image.

Undertow describes a relationship in terms of the forces of nature, specifically tidal power. Vega sings of the overwhelming aspects of being intimate — emotionally and physically — and the ultimately freeing nature of drawing on strength not one’s own. Some Journey is a more hypothetical but no less potent set of observations. With beautiful violin work soaring around the lyrics, the sense of motion is palpable as Vega wonders how a relationship might have been different. The travelling images are spot on and the vocal work is perhaps the finest on the disc.

Vega then opts for a more traditional folk motif with the fable of the Queen and the Soldier. It’s a tale of love, power, war, and — ultimately — betrayal that fits in with longstanding folk tropes. The ending images are unexpected, however, and the fate of the wilfully lonely queen and her brave but doomed suitor are poignant and jarring, creating a very modern sense in this old-fashioned setting.

Knight Moves is another highlight. Nicely positioned after the royal fable, it uses chess metaphors to describe personal relationships. Vega builds on that foundation without relying excessively on it, weaving a haunting chorus of questions about love around the symbolism. The balance is perfect, and this remains one of her finest songs. She wraps up the disc with the charming Neighborhood Girls, demonstrating an unexpected but perfect homage to the urban observations of Lou Reed. It isn’t clear how euphemistic the title is — are the girls barflies or professionals? — but that hardly matters as the lyrics reveal the conversation between two people watching them from a safe, curious distance. It’s a wonderful song that brings things to a strong, almost whimsical close.

FURTHER LISTENING: Vega has hardly been prolific, releasing only seven original albums in nearly 30 years. With one exception — the nearly techno sound of 99.9F° — all of her work is consistent and fits into her distinct version of modern folk. Even the experimental disc, produced by her future husband Mitchell Froom, is clearly folk at its roots, and every album features her wonderful mix of observations, love songs, and what she calls her “mental health songs.”  Two are particularly fine. Her third album, Days of Open Hand, shows her confidence as a writer and singer and her mastery of subtle power. Songs In Red and Gray, following her divorce from Froom, builds on his distinctive production style while returning to cleaner folk settings and features some of her most straightforward observations about relationships.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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