I’ve been listening to Suzanne Vega since I was ten years old. The songs that everyone knows are Luka and Tom’s Diner. These songs have held up well – Luka might suffer from a very-1987 guitar sound but it’s an incredible piece of pop songwriting. A song about child abuse is one thing – a Top 10 pop-song with a catchy hook and a very clear message is something else. I like that Vega still performs the song (why wouldn’t you? It’s a hit – and it’s great). That song could have been a millstone but she celebrates it, correctly, as a milestone.
The parent album to Luka and Tom’s Diner is Solitude Standing – and good as it is (try Ironbound/Fancy Poultry or the lullaby-gorgeousness of Gypsy) the songs on her eponymous debut from two years early are, mostly, better.
It suffers too for the squeaky-guitar sound, new wave being polished into pop – and rubbing the wrong way against the obvious folksiness, or folkishness, of the songs. Suzanne Vega, the album, must have been a strange prospect in 1985 – it still sounds like a strange prospect now. But imagine the songs without the electric guitar, synclavier and synthesizer and the album actually would make a lot more sense today – over 30 years on.
Listen to Cracking and Freeze Tag, Marlene On The Wall and Small Blue Thing. Straight Lines, Undertow, Some Journey and The Queen And The Soldier. Okay, so maybe these songs were never meant to be huge pop hits – but there’s so much depth, smart, beautiful songs that aren’t inaccessible, that aren’t off-putting. Songs that feel too good to have been written, pinned down. Songs that feel – still – like they’re hovering, drifting. We can pluck them out of the air for a listen then place then back to be discovered anew by someone else.
If 1990’s Days Of Open Hand had Vega treading water it also sounds a lot better now, over 25 years on. Plenty of great songs – even if it is not as remarkable as the first two albums; it bridges the gap and created the need perhaps for the change that was to come.
I only discovered Days Of Open Hand when I looked back. At the time it was released I was listening to anything else. Still checking in on the first two Vega albums from time to time but blissfully unaware of Open Hand.
And then with her 1992 release Suzanne Vega sounded fresh and new. She had found a way to marry her sharp songs to something beyond the default-setting folk-pop treatment. So with Blood Makes Noise and When Heroes Go Down and Song Of Sand and (If You Were) In My Movie you start to hear the Leonard Cohen influence on her lyric-writing but musically it’s playing in the places where Cohen’s music merely aches. The album was helped with the A-Team of Jerry Marotta on drums and Bruce Thomas on bass. David Hidalgo handled most of the guitars (a safer, better pair of hands you’d be hard placed to find). And Richard Thompson even popped in to peel off a solo.
My favourite Vega album was always 1996’s Nine Objects Of Desire – a desert island disc for me, this features some of her best writing (Headshots, Stockings, World Before Columbus, Tombstone, My Favourite Plum) and moves from ballads to rockers, semi-industrial textures and world-music ideas are integrated. It’s a musical collage that never suffers under the weight of all the production, writing and playing ideas.
Five years on there was Songs In Red And Gray. Vega was back to being ignored here, forgotten – and though I still think of Nine Objects as a desert island album it was replaced as my favourite Vega album by Songs In Red And Gray. The breakup of her marriage to Mitchell Froom – the man who had either enhanced or ruined her sound across the two previous albums – was the subject of many of the songs. And there is some brutal honesty in the lyrics. My favourite line: “daddy’s a dark riddle/mama’s a head full of bees” (Sylvia Plath would have been proud).
Signed to Blue Note, Vega released Beauty & Crime in 2007. It probably got ignored but again try Frank & Ava, Edith Wharton’s Figurines, Bound (and Unbound) and Pornographer’s Dream. All strong songs. (Bound might be one of the songs of her career).
After that Vega re-recorded and re-released her material, reinterpreting it through a series of acoustic albums 2010’s Close Up Vol. 1: Love Songs and Vol. 2: People And Places and 2011’s Vol. 3: States Of Being and finally Vol. 4: Songs Of Family.
It is not just a cash-in project (though clearly part of the reason is for Vega to regain some publishing). Many of the new versions suit the songs better than their originally recorded counterparts. It’s best to believe that she also wanted to hear the electric guitar picking, synth and synclavier removed. Her guitar playing and voice have lost nothing – the erudite songs feel lived in, if anything Vega has extra life experience that comes out in her (new) vocal delivery.
I might have spent more time listening to Suzanne Vega, all up, than just about any other artist in my collection. So I’m baffled when I hear her described as some poor woman’s Joni Mitchell. Sure, Joni stands very high on the mountain when it comes to great songwriters, but I hear more of Leonard Cohen in Vega’s way with the word (and world). There’s a playfulness often masked by what seems like an austerity. These are songs that have been crafted around the lyrics; the poetry of the songs is very much in the words. Mitchell’s music is poetic in and of itself – let alone her lyrical imagery. It’s an apples/oranges argument and redundant almost in the extreme.
“I had come to meet you/with a question in my footsteps…”
Suzanne Vega will be remembered for Luka, sure. And that’s a great song – no shame there. But her catalogue is filled with amazing songs. I recommend also her written collection, The Passionate Eye.
In the last few years she has released two great new albums, Tales From The Real of The Queen of Pentacles was the first to arrive (2014) after her series of albums where she reimagined the earlier songs. And just last year she released Lover Beloved: Songs From An Evening with Carson McCullers; the source goes back to before Vega released any of her own songs but the recordings are brand new. It’s in keeping with her very best work. As was Queen of Pentacles.
Some days I’m pretty sure she’s my favourite songwriter of all time. And I just wanted to share that with you. It’s something I’ve been meaning to say for a long time.
So, any other fans out there? Do you have favourite Suzanne Vega songs or albums? Or have you tried but you can’t hear anything for you?
My mate JT reckons there are very few musicians he could sit through a performance of if it was just them and their acoustic guitar, working through their songs. I think often about how amazing it would be to see Suzanne Vega live, solo. Just her, that voice and those gorgeous, incredible, wise, beautiful, brilliant songs.