Ordinary Magic

Suzanne Vega's 'Days of Open Hand'

by Imran Khan

3 June 2014


Primordial Truths

Still speaking in the language of dreams, Vega recounts the mass of jumbled emotions working at speeds lower than waking life, ideas which expand beyond the room of headspace, bending around all corners of working logic until they stretch over into the region of dreams. Here in a hesitant moment of need and longing, the singer re-evaluates a life under a pansophical lens.

On “Predictions”, a smoky, hand-drummed coil of rhythm, that moment is judiciously examined in a series of questions concerning the future. Finding comfort and a sort of domestic magic in the ordinariness of everyday objects, Vega reframes the potential of a life invariably given to routine and structure: “Let’s tell the future, let’s see how it’s been done; by dreams, by the features, by letters, by dropping hot wax into water, by nails reflecting the rays of the sun…” It isn’t so much about the apparatus of fortune-telling as it is about the reassessment and re-envisioning of a woman’s life, a stripping away of platitudes that have come to define an existence undisturbed by chance and possibility. In the mystic musings and earthy textures of the song, those possibilities are stretched beyond the point of certainty.

All hopes of a promising future are dashed on the solemn and urgent “50-50 Chance”, a song about a young girl’s suicide attempt. Featuring a stark and minimalist string arrangement by Philip Glass, Vega reframes yet another life in the scope of daily routine, this time imagining that life without a future. If “Tired of Sleeping” was the despairing tale of a young woman pleading for release from a life-threatening dream, “50-50 Chance” is the anguished scream for the awakening.

Vega’s plea, however, isn’t ripped from the throat of a body in slumber; it is the hushed and haunted appeal of a young mother lost in a waking nightmare of corridors and hospital rooms. The song recalls the chilled, solitary air of “Institution Green” with its image of lonely beings confined in barren space, but it deviates from an overwhelming sense of alienation; tender touches of skin, hand and lips are suffused with the miasmic swirl of the cauchemar. “50-50 Chance, the doctor said,” Vega begins, ending with: “She’s going home tomorrow at ten, the question is will she try it again?” A brewing sense of uncertainty brings up deeper tensions in this final line; it doesn’t demarcate the sense of hope and finality in the question, it obliterates either sense by bridging the precarious gap between both.

The singer’s question, therefore, is received with an indiscriminate, unaffected blank. We are watching a woman’s torment from a distance far removed from the sense of familiarity. Vega has managed to take a deeply moving and troubling account and render it impassive by the simple, artful poise of her storytelling.

If Days of Open Hand is an album of dreams, then there is surely the awareness of awakening, a certain consciousness hovering outside of these songs that is longing to be identified. Vega makes no concessions on the inventions of her inner world. And yet, each image presented – from a man tearing out a piece of his heart to a woman riding the wind on a pair of wings – is charged with a power and wisdom beyond animal logic.

As if to wrestle her free from the oneiric trap she has fallen into, “Pilgrimage” concludes the album as a wake-up call resounding from the world of the living. A densely mystical throb beating a stop-start rhythm, the song is at once the singer’s examination on the nature of resolution and a lifeline that will rouse her from her death-sleep. Vega appeals to a higher consciousness for help and from somewhere deep within, comes the numinous answer: “I’m coming to you, I’ll be there in time”. “Pilgrimage” is a reflective passage that deals with the pains of acceptance and uncertainty, the sadness and relief of leaving a strange and familiar dream that has served to protect and imprison you. And with this, the album ends on a note of release and ambiguity, a sense of the dream shattering and its prisoner lost to an open and sentient world.

It could be argued that the success of Days of Open Hand, when it was released in the spring of 1990, was interrupted by the success of DNA’s ingenious reworking of Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” a few months later in the fall. “Tom’s Diner”, originally an a cappella number which featured on her Solitude Standing album, was remixed as a sultry dance groove that skyrocketed up the charts and, in many ways, helped to redefine Vega’s career.

Vega would continue to experiment with beats, samples and grooves and a new formation of folk, pop and electronica could be found on the singer’s later releases 99.F and Nine Objects of Desire, both of which were produced by then-husband Mitchell Froom. Like the hazy, mysterious dream that it was, Days of Open Hand receded far into the shadows of the singer’s work, often overlooked and dismissed as a curious failure. In an interview with Q magazine, Vega once stated that she got hives every time she listened to the album, noting the difficulties of being pent up in an insular room while writing.

It’s easy to understand Vega’s discomfort with the album years later; she had delved too deeply into areas she may never have cared to explore in the first place. The matter concerning the album wasn’t so much that it cut too close to the bone and was, therefore, a shameless revelation of confidential, human space. Rather, it cut too deep into people’s dreams; a quiet and subtle violation of the psychic sphere ruled not by the cosmos, but by emotion alone. A young woman’s descent into the surreal, chimerical country of her mind signaled a moment of indecision, a traversing of internalized beliefs and newborn fantasies.

Following her experimental patch with producer Froom, Vega would return to much more traditional fare on albums like Songs in Red and Gray and her most recent offering, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. These albums showed the powerful musical craftsmanship of an artist who told deeply provocative tales from a respectful objective distance.

Yet no other work in her repertoire has captured the secreted truths found on Days of Open Hand; truths so primordial, they endeavoured to obliterate the objective space Vega ferociously fought to keep. The album’s strange magic dealt with the ordinary measures surrounding waking life; magic that comes to life in the mind’s eye when the world falls away in the moments of sleep. Like the sound of an ancient, indelible dream, Days of Open Hand encapsulated both the beauty and the danger of living inside one’s own head.

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