If you're of a certain age and sensitivity, you probably know the music of Suzanne Vega. I first discovered her when she did the amazing Left Of Center on the Pretty In Pink soundtrack (watch it). That song has the power to speak to, like, every emotional teenager in one way or another.
I was with my parents, about 16 years old, when I bought the cassette of her eponymous debut album at the Tower in DC (RIP) and I can still picture that day, because we were downtown for an Easter meal and I remember constantly quoting, aloud, one line: "It's a one time thing, it just happens a lot." I was like a child with a new word and I'm sure it got annoying. I wasn't aware then that those words, from the first song, Cracking, would have more meaning as I grew up. It's sort of a dangerous line isn't it? "It's a one time thing, it just happens a lot."
That debut album had so many great songs for a poetry-obsessed teen and its follow-up, 1987's Solitude Standing, was even more perfect. Most cities at that time in the mid-eighties had an indie or college station. In Washington, it was WHFS. They would actually play Suzanne rarities during the normal rush hour! It's hard to imagine this happening now, but there was point in time when her child-abuse song Luka [video] was a huge international hit. Now the charts are more about non-singers who do T&A and the music is incidental. At the time, people considered Madonna to be the downfall of art, but we didn't know how the popular music would become a case of diminishing returns in regard not only to vocal talent, but to a point of view beyond one's booty. In fact, I'm not sure the the word "booty" existed in 1985.
Suzanne is soon to release (or has already in the UK) her 7th album of original material and the good news is that, in 2007, she still has the same combination of qualities that made her so refreshing in 1985. The album, Beauty & Crime, is produced by Jimmy Hogarth (who also produced Sia, Corinne Bailey Rae et al) and is all about New York City. The Beauty is just that, with great string arrangements, and the Crime is represented by grittier tales.Blue Note has a long PR piece on the record. Suzanne says this:
It seemed natural to write a bunch of songs that were about New York or little stories that had New York as a character... I feel like I really stretched my limits. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone—to sing in keys I wouldn’t have sung in before, to work with different textures, to be unafraid of doing whatever sounded good to me. I wanted to make a modern classic.Watch 2 mins of the Making Of EPK:
Beauty & Crime is Suzanne's best record since Solitude Standing twenty years ago. The 11 songs - not 15, thank you - are concise, tightly arranged and highly melodic. And her voice! At 48, it has not aged.
My favorite, Pornographer's Dream, references Betty Page and poses a question: what really is a pornographer's dream when it all comes true in front of him? "Wouldn't he dream of the thing that he never could quite get the touch of?" Mixing bossa nova verses with a sort of climbing orchestral chorus, the song is chill-inducingly pretty.
An elegy for her late brother, the wistful Ludlow Street is about the evolution of Manhattan neighborhoods. You go back years later and the buildings may or may not be there, but if your people are gone, then something has changed. "I find each stoop and doorway's incomplete without you there." The track's mix of acoustics, synths and strings is more lush and complex than anything Suzanne has ever done. She is paying as much attention to atmospherics as she is to lyrics and the songs are better for it.
Anniversary could sit next to any of the songs on that great 1985 debut, and it's one of the few September 11 songs I can stomach: "Clear the way for all your private memories as they greet you on each corner... make the time for all your possibilities. They live on every street."
The lyrics for Angel's Doorway read as a classic Vega narrative, but the arrangement is like nothing like she's ever produced, with subtle electronic instrumentation (I love the ping-ing on the chorus), double-tracked vocals and, like much of the record, an aura of urgency.
What a thrill to hear this album. This happens with artists who've maintained quality over the long haul: Listening to Suzanne nail it with Beauty & Crime is like meeting an old friend you've not seen for years. After a moment of trepidation, you realize that, despite distance or neglect, the spark remains and the conversation picks right up where you left it long ago.
If you don't know Suzanne's music, here are my (up to now) Top Ten +1 Suzanne Vega songs....
Marlene On The Wall
Left Of Center
Book Of Dreams
Soap And Water
Suzanne Vega Myspace
Suzanne Vega Book And A Cover rare video
Suzanne Vega on The Hype Machine
Suzanne Vega talks about her 13 yo daughter you see a pic of her at the end