Monday, 16 July 2012
85 Suzanne Vega - Suzanne Vega
Purchased : April 1988
Tracks : Cracking / Freeze Tag / Marlene On The Wall / Small Blue Thing / Straight Lines / Undertow / Some Journey / The Queen And The Soldier / Knight Moves / Neighbourhood Girls
This was the first of the regular purchases I had to make from Britannia - was it 3 or 6 a year ? I can't now remember.
Suzanne emerged from the Greenwich Village folk scene with this debut LP in 1985 and found seemingly instant fame particularly in this country where she was regarded as single-handedly resurrecting the acoustic singer-songwriter tradition of James Taylor and his ilk. Of course we already had Billy Bragg but he was too political and his singing voice too unmellifluous to really qualify. Suzanne never welcomed this idea , looking acutely uncomfortable when Terry Wogan crassly put it to her - why was he so bad on TV ? - on his chat show but it undoubtedly won her a lot of attention in the middle of the decade and propelled this LP into the album charts before any of her singles had become hits.
For a start there are no wholly acoustic tracks on this LP . There's quite a large supporting cast, the production isn't exactly minimalist and most of the tracks feature some synthesiser work. On the other hand Suzanne did write and play acoustic gutar on each track. Suzanne said her inspiration for the songs came partly from personal experience , partly from observation of others and partly from her imagination. Her voice is attractive but limited, occasionally impassioned but usually diffident and sometimes arch ( when she sounds very like Laurie Anderson ) .
Suzanne's lyrics are not always easy to interpret. I reckon I've got about half of the songs pinned down but I could be miles off on all of them. The opening track "Cracking" where Suzanne mainly speaks the lyric in a carefully neutral tone seems to be about emerging from a failed relationship into the cold day of renewed singlehood. There are plenty of icy metaphors and the whole first side has something of the chill of the New York winter about it. Like the majority of the tracks here there are no drums but Suzanne and her guitar are accompanied by Paul Dugan's understated bass, a simple counter-melody on synth and the odd electric guitar chord from Jon Gordon.
"Freeze Tag" links both the preceding track with a continuation of the winter theme and the one that follows with the line "I will be Dietrich" and seems to be about the uncertainty of whether to commit to a new relationship or stay in playful mode. The music reflects this with Vega and Frank Christian's guitars circling each other almost stumbling at times while Dugan's barely-there vertical bass holds the ring.
Then the decision is made with "Marlene On The Wall", the album's hit single ( at the second time of asking in April 1986 ) a self-conscious farewell to the single life signified by the picture of Marlene Dietrich on the wall. I'm still a bit dubious about songwriters ( going back to Kim Carnes I guess ) using classic film stars as metaphors or even adjectives but this is one of the more palatable examples. Here the rhythm section of Sue Evans on drums and Frank Gravis on bass first appear to give the track more muscle and Jon Gordon is allowed a brief electric solo in the middle eight. The lyric has a fair amount of sexual inuendo - "don't give away the goods too soon", "she records the rise and fall" but there are also disturbing hints of violence "the fingerprints on me from you" that anticipate Tori Amos.
They also lead onto "Small Blue Thing" the second , less succesful single which I actually prefer. A self-effacing confession of vulnerability sung with icy clarity it seemed the perfect soundtrack for the unusually harsh winter of 1986 but that wasn't enough to get it into the Top 40. The music is generally quiet ( though punctuated with sudden loud chords ) but full of foreboding particularly in the chorus where Evans's percussion chops in like threatening footsteps.
Then Suzanne abruptly toughens up and switches to third person narrative with "Straight Lines" the nearest thing to an upbeat rock track on the LP. It's the story of a woman giving up on the frustrated dreams of youth and embracing reality by the symbolic act of cutting her hair. The music switches between relatively in-your-face verses with the full rhythm section and a harsher tone both in Vega's voice and her stark three-note riff and softer synth-led chorus.
Side Two is more diffuse, the songs more self-contained. "Undertow" has the largest cast on the album with violin and cello added to give the chorus an extra emotional swell. It's a complex song with Suzanne reverting to first person and confessing to over-posssessiveness, masochism and anorexia in the course of the lyric. The statement line "I am friend to the undertow" is open to a number of interpretaions but may reflect her desire to be perceived as an outsider , a stance taken much more overtly on the standalone single "Left Of Centre" that followed this LP and perhaps necessary for an artist that straddled the line between the Smiths-loving student audience and the yuppie crowd. I imagine the whole song to be addressed to a new lover giving them a "warts and all " picture as a test.
"Some Journey" could have come from the pen of Donna Tartt's Richard Papen with his "fatal longing for the picturesque at all costs". It's about rejecting or at least feeling disappointed with the safe prosaic boy next door and longing for the wisp of exotic romance - the "eastbound train", the "lady fair all dressed in lace". The music is suitably restless with Jon Gordon's rhythm guitar scratching away beneath the surface sheen of Mark Isham's synth work. The song closes with a coda provided by Darol Anger's electric violin which immediately suggests The Waterboys.
"The Queen And The Soldier" is the longest track but one of the more disappointing. It's an extended fairy tale metaphor for a battle of wills in a relationship that suggests a familiarity with the works of Leonard Cohen. It's noteworthy that Suzanne's male soldier is brave and stoic while the queen is capricious and immature but otherwise it doesn't have anything really interesting to say. Suzanne's guitar is abetted by Steve Addabo's 12-string and C P Roth's organ and piano to fill out the sound but it's just a bit too long and there's no chorus.
"Knight Moves" is another challenging song to interpret although Suzanne has said that the title refers to a male acquaintance whose life progressed in the non-linear fashion of the knight on a chess board, the jerky rhythm of the verses reinforcing this idea. The bulk of the lyric seems to be about a sudden discovery that she's not the only woman in her lover's life and the delivery switches between anger and sorrow. The last verse is pretty incomprehensible but doesn't spoil the song.
That just leaves "Neighbourhood Girls" which has an atypical jazzy feel and slide guitar from Frank Christian suggestive of Steely Dan. The lyric recited in Laurie Anderson fashion initially suggests it's about prostitution but later verses suggests it's more about the sort of restless bohemian who has to leave their neighbourhood to find themselves with Suzanne as fascinated observer regretting the departure. It's not my cup of tea musically but rounds the album off on an interesting note.
We'll be meeting Suzanne again but for now this was a very assured and still impressive debut.