Anyone who knows Suzanne Vega knows that she’s one of the finest and most significant singer-songwriters of the last 30 years. A writer of intelligence and sophistication, an interesting guitarist, and a singer who never lets inappropriate (and downright annoying) histrionics cloud her poetic, literate, often insightful sentiments, she’s a joy to have around.
But the music business isn’t an easy place to be anymore, and while Vega still commands a strong and loyal following to her live shows, her record sales – owing to a variety of factors, among them Internet piracy, promotion issues, lack of airplay – have been on the slide. 2007’s Beauty & Crime, among her most acclaimed works, was a wonderful album that didn’t perform too strongly commercially, leading to the dissolution of Vega’s partnership with Blue Note.
So the news that she was returning with a four-part series of acoustic re-recordings of past glories was, to a select few, a little odd. But there is more to her Close-Up series than meets the eye.
Firstly, let’s look at that term – “past glories.” Well, “past” as in they were written and first recorded in years gone by, but that’s not to say that they are not just as relevant and sublime today (they are), or that Vega is no longer writing new material (she is.) But some of these songs are upwards of 25 years old, and one, “Gypsy,” was written as far back as 1978. So it makes sense – and an interesting alternative perspective – for the writer, at 50, to approach a song she wrote as a teenager with all the wisdom and experience gained in the intervening years: without changing a single word.
Secondly, it makes economic sense. It’s a recession – we know this. The music business is in a state of flux, to say the least. We know this too. Suzanne Vega has a catalogue of much-loved songs, among them “Small Blue Thing,” “Marlene on the Wall,” and “Caramel.” And yes, we also know this too. So to present new recordings of popular songs is something that may appeal to a wider audience as opposed to Vega’s core following.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly of all, it allows Vega to retain ownership of these particular recordings, as many of the originals are, absurdly, not owned by Vega, instead falling into the hands of major labels (Vega was on A&M for her first six studio LPs.) She is financing the project and releasing it independently through her own Amanuensis (interesting slave/master reference there) label, so this really is an independent, self-made product.
More prosaically, it offers fans the chance to buy something new at Vega’s shows, which is pretty important for the touring musician.
But don’t assume that this project is driven by the desire to sell, sell, sell. Suzanne Vega is much too classy for that. No, Close-Up (the first volume, released on Amanuensis and through iTunes and Barnes & Noble in February, is entitled Love Songs) really is a lovingly-crafted project that shines the light on Vega’s writing and the skeletons of the songs. When Mitchell Froom’s dense production is taken off “(If You Were) In My Movie,” for instance, the song is revealed to be, if anything, even more wonderfully quirky and offbeat than before. And if you thought that a languorous, sexy, sensual gem like “Caramel” couldn’t survive without the bossa nova rhythm or Astrud Gilberto-referencing horns, you’d be wrong. It takes on a much more intimate quality, and the sheer strength of the composition is there for all to see (or rather, hear.)
That’s one of the main draws of the project – it’s an album that is songs-driven. This isn’t about fancy arrangements or production. It’s not 100% solo or acoustic, but it’s pretty stripped-down. Songs like “Small Blue Thing” don’t change too much, probably because they were pretty stripped to begin with, but others, like Nine Objects of Desire‘s “Headshots” and “Stockings” are transformed somewhat. The former remains utterly beguiling with its basic set-up, while the latter trades the Eastern-tinged string arrangement of the 1996 original for handclaps and a supple bass line.
Favourites like “Marlene on the Wall” are included, this one slowed to a much more mid-tempo pace, allowing the listener to more clearly discern Vega’s wry, imaginative story about a picture of Marlene Dietrich who “records the rise and fall” of the narrator’s various conquests. (Vega also gets her live concert delivery of the line “I tried so hard… to resist” down on record; here, the phrasing, lingering on the idea of the struggle, arguably carries more weight and is ultimately more effective.) But a project like this also affords Vega the opportunity to present some songs that are maybe less well-known, like the beautiful “Bound,” an intense love song that here attains a more haunting quality without the urgent string arrangement of the studio original. There’s a quiet, graceful passion that marks it out.
And what about the voice? There’s a warmth and experience to Vega’s voice now that colours the songs in quite a different way; “Small Blue Thing” felt, perhaps, a little chilly (in a good way) in its 1985 studio original, compared to the subtle grace it takes on today.
It remains to be seen which songs Vega will choose for the next three themed collections, but I’d love to hear some from 1990’s underappreciated Days of Open Hand, which features some of Vega’s most interesting and unusual writing.
But really, it wouldn’t matter whether she gleaned all the songs from her 1985 debut or from her work of the last decade, because the quality of the work has remained of a superb standard throughout her career. There’s never been a dip or a lull in some 25 years, and that’s something that should command huge respect. The ‘masses’ know Vega through her ‘hits’ “Luka” and the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner,” and while they offer a glimpse into her sophisticated style, they’re not even half the picture. If I had my way, the ‘masses’ would also know “Ironbound,” “Freeze Tag,” “Penitent,” “Ludlow Street,” “Thin Man,” “As Girls Go,” “Institution Green,” “Big Space,” “Cracking,” “Edith Wharton’s Figurines,” “Knight Moves,” “Rosemary”…the list goes on and on. Vega’s writing is up there with the greats: very different to Bob Dylan or Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits or Rickie Lee Jones, but equally brilliant.
So, if you thought that Close-Up was nothing to get excited about, think again. We’re lucky to have a musician, singer, writer, poet as sophisticated and interesting as Suzanne Vega still at work in a sea of bland and uninspiring “singer-songwriters.” This project offers a fresh look at songs from a 25-year span that remain as significant and relevant today as they did then.
Here’s a sublime rendition of “Gypsy” from WNYC in January