Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles
Suzanne Vega returns with the first new album of original material in seven years and instantly it’s a warm reminder of that voice, like an old Hollywood idea of grace and beauty, aging naturally, and, infinitesimally – you have to check the spine, or scroll over the cover image to remind yourself that this is not the Suzanne Vega of 99.9F degrees or for that matter the Suzanne Vega of Suzanne Vega. The guitar figure that leads Jacob and the Angel takes you right back to that debut, self-titled album, the Arabic strings that flavour Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain might have come from Robert Plant’s idea of how to rearrange and recontextualise, but they also send you back to the 99.9F album for clues and proof that Vega has always been thinking of – and coming up with – ways to sidestep the conventionality of (being written up/written off as) mere singer/songwriter.
But when you hear the way she sings and how she sounds on album opener Crack In The Wall and later on the soft cooing calmness of Silver Bridge you could believe that you’ve slipped back into Days Of Open Hand – the most underrated album of Vega’s career. Perhaps, then, Tales From The Realm of The Queen of Pentacles will become its replacement, the new best/most-underrated. Oh, to begin with it could suffer being overrated, it’s easy to trumpet up claims of brilliance given the long break and the decision to re-record catalogue highlights, a suggestion there might not be anything left in the tank. We love a good “comeback”, so much so many of us will be at pains to assist in the orchestration of one. And to then claim we had a say in calling it.
This is no comeback. This is very much the continuation. You look again at that discography. There’s nothing strange about taking seven years out. There was a noticeable gap between 99.9 and Nine Objects of Desire, a bigger one between that and Songs in Red and Gray and six years between Red and Gray and Beauty & Crime. Each new album arrives as both reinvention and continuation. There’s never quite a sea change, but there’s always subtle new twists to the sound, new techniques in providing nurturing hands, the songs always birthed and then held like babies, the newly found sounds that will go on to represent their mother.
And then, just as they’re out in the world, all the care in the world behind them, we immediately call up the family resemblance, how Song of the Stoic is a song about child abuse, so there’s a link to Luka, to the Solitude Standing album, how stories that mention kings and queens have been on her records since the debut, how the references to the bible and tarot cards and mentions of Mother Theresa (Lying On Of Hands/Stoic 2) and a tribute to Vaclav Havel (Horizon – There’s A Road) remind us of the always clever, often cautious wordiness within the worlds of her songs, the studious nature of her observations, the lyrics drawn, painted, paused over, pondered, never seeming like they might ever have been scribbled down on napkins. Or chunked up in the studio to meet a deadline.
Yes in that sense this is just another Suzanne Vega album. Which of course means if you’re a fan that’s wonderful news. And if you’ve never got the buzz you might not get it here either. (Once again).
But listen for that warm, sweet, sorrowful, beautiful trumpet call that circles as the gentle, perfect closing track, Horizon, sends this album off out into the world. It’s almost Beatle-esque, it’s certainly a stunning conclusion. Listen too for the empathy and colour offered by seasoned players like Tony Levin and Larry Campbell. And marvel again at how Vega’s voice – both the one on the page and the one meant for the stage – sounds as good, as consistent, as ready and perfect and lovely and wise as ever was the case.
Same as it ever was? Well, she’s a once in this lifetime kind of singer/songwriter.
And so this is another perfectly crafted set of songs. Not one of her best. But only because that would be insulting to a career of fine work; when the rent-a-rave reviewers push on and place their purpose prose elsewhere we’ll come back to this, and see it for what it really is – part of the continuation, part of the charm, a little of the magic – and another of the underrated albums in a canon of such fine standing.