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Class ?

Main Category: Singer-Songwriters
Also applicable: Folk Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Suzanne Vega fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Suzanne Vega fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1985

Sometimes commercial success actually means something - and the fact that Suzanne Vega's debut was a real explosion on the British market (despite her being an "import Californian girl" and all) and fared pretty good on the American one as well really speaks volumes. Because, to tell you the truth, there's hardly any real commercial potential in this bunch of songs. By 1985, singer-songwriters with an acoustic guitar were pretty much a thing of the past, and most of the old heroes had either sold out to Eighties production or just kind of faded away, like Chuck Berry. Yet, just as Stevie Ray Vaughan managed to single-handedly revitalize the blues legacy a couple years earlier, Suzanne Vega managed to revitalize singer-songwriting, and this album initiated this revival - for better or worse.

There's no question about the record being highly derivative. You can hear notes of Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, and Leonard Cohen throughout. There's also no question about the record being imperfect. Vega's voice is nice and convincing, but the girl obviously has problems with singing; the guitar melodies also leave a lot to be desired, and the minimalistic arrangements are pretty drab; it would probably be better had Vega just stuck to the guitar throughout, without these wimpy keyboard layers on some of the songs. That said, may I please remind you that, for instance, early acoustic Dylan suffers from exactly the same problems - and I needn't even mention Leonard Cohen. Cohen is perhaps the best comparison here - just like him, Vega realizes that it would be futile for her to sing, and instead she prefers to recite her lyrics in a half-spoken, half-poetic, and only a wee bit "chanted" style.

In other words, here we have a performer fully aware of her limitations and putting her main effort into her strong sides. These are mostly of the intellectual variety - she's highly literate and capable of writing almost Kate Bush-quality lyrics, as well as of delivering them in a firm and unwavering, yet never really pretentious style. As with pretty much every singer-songwriter, it's excruciatingly hard to define the essence of the album's charm - the symbolist lyrics are even more cryptic than Cohen's, and it'd be a tough job to start unwinding the enigma from that side. I think the primary thing to note is that the record is chockfull of personality - which is why so much of the British public, fed to the brim with the occasionally catchy and well-made, but totally faceless pap of the Top 40, actually hunted down this excellent possibility for venting out their feelings.

It's definitely not a big deal when you get yourself a record and it begins with a little 'Dear Prudence'-style acoustic rhythm and an unknown girl with a low, husky voice saying, not singing: 'It's a one. Time. Thing. It just happens. A lot'. It doesn't make you fall on your knees and shed tears, or want to smash everything in the room. But it sticks. A lot. It just happens. There's no answers on this record, only questions, and I deem it much better when the record has more questions than answers - it becomes sort of interactive, then. What happens? When? Why? Is it a love song? It probably is. Is it a lost love song or a found love song? No idea. Is it optimistic or pessimistic? It's neither. You're just given the picture, it's up to you to build up your own emotions. Finish the picture!

Speaking of the individual songs, they are actually quite well-written, with a few exceptions. There aren't too many catchy choruses, and the acoustic formula never quivers, but almost every song has satisfying dynamics and while I did say that Suzanne's guitar playing leaves a lot to be desired, that was mainly in the technical sense - it's not like she has to be a Nick Drake (another huge influence, by the way - how could he not be?). 'Marlene On The Wall' reflects her passion for Frau Dietrich, with a vocal melody that I could swear had been ripped off Rod Stewart's 'Killing Of Georgie', but with a totally different - and superior - resolution of each verse in the quietly chanted title. More vocal hooks can be found in 'Straight Lines', perhaps the bleakest song on here, and the magnificent 'Undertow', where Vega uses a jazzy chord sequence not unlike the one employed eighteen years earlier by Pete Townshend on 'Sunrise' - similar enough to convey an atmosphere of the same ethereal beauty, but different enough so as not to be a copycat exercise.

Also, it's important to remember that most of these songs are short - none go over four minutes, so if some seem to be more boring than others, at least they'll be over quickly. The sole exception is a half-assed attempt at a moralistic medievalistic ballad ('The Queen And The Soldier'), which, I think, is a major misstep - and hardly fits in with the rest of the songs; stereotypic "folk-rock" isn't really Suzanne's cup of tea, even if the lyrics are sort of okay. Fortunately, she redeems herself with the quirky 'Knight Moves', a sort of exquisite love plead alternating between jazzy and folksy chord sequences, and the enigmatic 'Neighborhood Girls', the only fully-arranged song on the entire record, with drums and bass and electric guitars and everything you'd expect - and a delicious descending riff to boot. Aw, what the heck, I don't need to make any excuses to praise this album, and believe me, it is still perfectly listenable today, transcending the "real music breather" status it must have had in the mid-Eighties.



Year Of Release: 1987

Suzanne's commercial peak and consequently the album that's universally known as "If You're Interested In The Lilith Fair, Try This For Starters". I like it myself, but not nearly as much as the debut; clearly, it's yet another case of a record gaining praise primarily through financial reasons.

Besides, everybody probably knows 'Tom's Diner'. I have known it myself for many years as that "tut tut too-doo tut tu doo-doo" tune set to an annoying trip-hop beat or whatever it was being set to, in that infamous electronic DNA version in the early Nineties. Apparently, there's been so many different remakes and remixes of the tune that Vega herself, presumably as sort of a hip joke, later collected and released all of them as Tom's Album. But back in 1987, 'Tom's Diner' was merely a two-minute little accappella chant, with a cute little sequence of "observationist" lyrics obviously inspired by French poets like Jacques Prevert, and it was neither annoying nor overplayed. (To be fair, it gets an instrumental synthy version at the end of the album, but you don't really need it).

The actual hit from the album, though, wasn't 'Tom's Diner': it was 'Luka', a somewhat sentimental, but unpretentious tale of domestic abuse (at least everybody presumes it's about domestic abuse). It's a cool tune indeed, and shows Vega's new approach to production: this time, she's backed by a real band, with multiple instruments and all, and the sound is refreshingly non-dated, with moderate support from a few chimin' synthesizers but mostly relying on acoustic and electric guitars anyway. You can't deny the catchiness of the melody either, I guess, but it's still a little strange how the song could have made it into the Top 10 at a time when synth-pop and hair metal pretty much dominated that area. The super-popularity of the tune has eventually backlashed against it in "hip" circles, I think, but I don't care - I think it's wonderful, and Suzanne's "childish" delivery of the melody only works to its advantage.

In general, Solitude Standing is an uneven album, though: it was largely culled from Vega's backlog of songs, and while I don't have a formal copy of the album and don't know exactly which year which song was written, I feel that much of this stuff may be significantly "underworked" because of that. A song like 'Calypso' just doesn't do anything much except for atmospherically meandering on the spot for several minutes, with lyrics that take Odyssey for an inspiration but don't seem to stray too far away into independent waves. [GENERAL STUPID DISCLAIMER #1: Since Suzanne Vega is a singer-songwriter, I am perfectly aware that any single one of her songs can be the reader's personal favourite, as well as that there might not be a single song of hers that the reader would dislike. GENERAL STUPID DISCLAIMER #2: Since Suzanne Vega is a singer-songwriter, I am perfectly aware that the reader might experience unbearable fits of uncontrolled nausea, diarrhoea and whatever other medicinal disturbance might occur at the first sounds of any of her songs. So bear with me, you motherfuckers!]

Anyway, where was I? In general, I feel Solitude is a more commercially oriented album, which doesn't, however, mean that she has to write weaker, less interesting songs. 'Ironbound/Fancy Poultry' is very touching, for instance, with Vega's cascading vocal melody putting me in a... uh... could you say "graceful" mood? Even if you couldn't, I'll go ahead and say it anyway. It's pretty strange to have some more of that character-gazing "descriptionist" approach to lyrics followed by a recitation of the 'Fancy Poultry' part ('backs are cheap and wings are nearly free'), too.

From what I've read, fans usually choose the title track as their favourite - the most anthemic and "powerful" thing on the album - but I find it a bit too vague, and prefer to concentrate on lesser known little gems, like 'Night Vision', for instance. 'Night Vision' is Eighties singer-songwriter perfectionism, I guess: the interlocking acoustic guitars never waste a note, the synth backing is sparse and effective, the vocal melody is not too catchy but enthralling and complex, the lyrics are heartfelt, and the 'I can only teach you... night vision, night vision' conclusion to the song is almost creepy.

Other highlights would be 'Gypsy' (what a perfect song title for a female singer-songwriter, eh?), with its memorable chorus, the almost rocking 'In The Eye', and the percussion-heavy 'Wooden Horse'. If anything, it's a pretty inventive album - Vega never panders to conventional (meaning "generic") melodies, following the less trivial route of Joni Mitchell, and even if you hate this, you gotta admit... well, you gotta admit she's not pushing it. So many singer-songwriters try to force you into their world, this girl doesn't. She's way too much into French poetry for that.


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