Saturday, July 1, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1655: Suzanne Vega

It was only two albums ago (on a Waylon Jennings review) that I noted I’d taken a deep dive into two artists. Waylon was one of them and this next album is by the other one.

Disc 1655 is…Self-titled

Artist: Suzanne Vega

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover?  Portrait of a young artist, dressed in black.

With that interplay of light and her serious expression this could be a scene from a film noir. Vega’s just arrived at my office telling me how I shouldn’t trust that blonde bombshell that showed up with a job a couple days earlier. Do I trust the bombshell or this brash young woman with sensitive eyes that you know hide their own share of secrets? This being a film noir, the answer is obvious. Both these dames’ll try to kill me before the week is out. Trust neither.

How I Came To Know It: I learned about Suzanne Vega from my friend and former roommate Greg, who one day brought home her underappreciated gem “99.9 F” (reviewed way back at Disc 456). That was all I needed over the last several decades, but last week I bought three more of her records. This is one of them.

How It Stacks Up: As the mathletes among you will have already determined, I now have four of Suzanne Vega’s nine studio albums and at this point my desire for her records is sated. Her self-titled debut is my least favourite of those four. Pessimists will note that makes it least liked, optimists will note that it is fourth of nine.

Rating: 2 stars

First albums are often an artist’s best. In the case of Suzanne Vega, her first album shows the promise of her talent, but apart from a few gems, it also shows an artist still finding her voice.

Vega does an alternative, soft spoke, and thoughtful pop that is ahead of its time. Nowadays I listen to all kinds of artists who owe their legacy to her (Torres, Samia and others come to mind). Atmospheric and mysterious, Vega’s voice has a slightly (but deliberately) flat delivery. She occupies a space that is part whisper, part spoken word and part contemporary folk. I can’t think of anyone else doing what she was doing in 1985, which is cool even if it isn’t consistently my cup of tea.

What struck me most on this record is how it is arranged around melody, rather than through it. The guitar strums and drumbeats all seem off the beat, or around it, like the winking stars in a night sky collectively making up a constellation. It is here on many reviews that I would say how Vega’s vocals cut through that constellation of sound like a streaking meteor but…not so much. She is not a powerhouse, nor a particularly emotional singer, relying on phrasing and lyrics to get her through. More of a distant shooting star that you have to be ready for in order to appreciate.

Vega relies on her words to make the songs have gravitas, with mixed results. Some of these tunes tell great stories, notably “Marlene on the Wall” and my favourite, “the Queen and the Soldier”. “The Queen and the Soldier” is a tragic fairy tale, and the most linear of the songs on the record for what you could call “plot”. It has an old school “The Faerie Queene” kind of quality. It is also Vega’s best writing, with stanzas filled with heart and a carefully structured dialogue between a soldier demanding answers and the queen who he has served. It begins:

“The soldier came knocking upon the Queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you anymore"
The Queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside

“He said, "I've watched your palace up here on the hill
And I've wondered who's the woman for whom we all kill
But I am leaving tomorrow and you can do what you will
Only first I am asking you why"”

It is a lovely and magical conversation but (spoiler alert) doesn’t end well for the soldier. Nothing new there, but along the way it creates memorable characters, some surprising revelations and great poetry.

In other places, the poetry falls short. “Small Blue Thing” feels like a writing assignment from a first-year creative writing course. Stanzas like these:

“Today I am a small blue thing
Made of china, made of glass
I am cool and smooth and curious, I never blink
I am turning in your hand
Turning in your hand”

Feel strained. Earlier, the small blue thing is compared to an eye, so this seems to be an effort to link the earlier eye imagery to the new imagery, except now the small blue thing never blinks. It is a strained connectivity that reinforced my thinking that some writing prof had assigned the class the task of “writing about a small blue thing”. I bet he hated grading that assignment.

The record suffers from eighties production values (and the fact that I’m listening to a direct transfer to CD without adjustments from the record-friendly mix doesn’t help). But it isn’t just the production. The arrangements that float around the tunes are very art school, and only work about half the time.

I give Vega credit for being at the forefront of a pop music movement still alive and vibrant today, and there are easily enough gems on the record to warrant keeping it. However, this is not her greatest work, and I’m glad time and experience brought her to higher levels on later records.

Best tracks: Marlene on the Wall, Undertow, The Queen and the Soldier

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