The perspective of middle age makes many things look tiny and fragile as they disappear in your personal rear-view mirror. Popular art gets small very quickly. The music you loved, or even just knew quite well, at 17 or even 27 quickly becomes a speck as you cross 40 and head for 50. Sure, “Daytripper” or I Love Lucy might still loom large in 2010, but when was the last time you thought about, say, “Breaking Us in Two”, the 1983 hit by Joe Jackson?
Suzanne Vega made seven remarkable albums of intelligent pop music between 1985 and 2007, but for most people she is an interesting footnote to the 1980s—not exactly a pair of purple leg-warmers, but not far off. A decent gaggle of sensitive college kids loved her eponymous 1985 debut. “Marlene on the Wall” was even a kind of hit, with a video on MTV. This was smart-kid pop music, though, and nothing like the vintage ‘80s stuff (Duran Duran, Poison) that stained the decade in so many memories. Vega was an English major at Barnard and broke in via Greenwich Village coffeehouses, just like Tracy Chapman was a Tufts student playing in Harvard Square (remember “Fast Car” from 1988?).
In 1987, Vega struck pop gold with “Luka”, her temporarily ubiquitous and impossibly catchy tune (about, er, . . . child abuse), and Solitude Standing reached the 11th spot on the Billboard charts. The disc’s first tune was its most unusual: an a cappella sing-song story set in “Tom’s Diner”. But a few year’s later, a pair of British producers remixed “Tom’s Diner” with a propulsive groove, and Vega’s cushiony, gentle voice was a hit again.
Then pooooooffff; she was mostly gone from view.
In fact, she made five more albums, and truly fine ones, but her chart success was over. The bossa nova “Caramel” (1996) appeared in the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs (and in the trailer for the film Closer). But time was doing its thing to Vega. Pop music fashions had moved on and her patient storytelling and literate lyricism had no place in any radio format or on American Idol. A&M Records dropped her, even though her 1990s albums experimented with dance beats, industrial sounds, and world music. Another “Luka” was not coming.
If you were following Vega and loved her art, then she was decidedly relevant: hosting radio shows, collaborating with jazz musicians like Bill Frisell, judging the Independent Music Awards, and experimenting with web-based music. Her 2007 Beauty and Crime was released on the legendary jazz label, Blue Note, and it even won a Grammy for engineering.
If you were following and enjoying Vega, she was vital and interesting, a treasure—still active and smart and making beautiful art. If you were following and enjoying her, then you were probably someone older, someone who first loved her work when you were younger, digging “Luka” or “Marlene on the Wall” or “Small Blue Thing” during the Reagan administration. Which, for the record, was about a quarter century ago.
2010 finds Suzanne Vega embarked on a retrospective project, and one that is also a kind of reclamation. All those great recordings that came out on A&M—they belong to A&M. So Vega decided to re-record scores of her songs in spare acoustic form, putting up her own money so the masters would be hers. She is releasing these reinterpretations in four thematically grouped collections. The first is Close Up: Volume One, Love Songs, just out.
In some cases, the original recordings were gentle folk-rock arrangements not that different from the new versions. As a result, many of these new versions are less reinventions than clarifications that carry the wisdom of time. “Marlene” is basically the same, stripped of some distracting drums and of some telltale 1985 synthesizer. In her singing, Vega has not lost the whispery tones that made her so distinct as a young artist, but she has added more skill in phrasing and greater expressiveness at low volume. The new “Marlene” is better in each small change, and particularly better because the words are now more clearly at the forefront. We hear the song better now: a poster of Dietrich staring down at a young woman making romantic mistakes of inevitability.
In other cases, the new versions are more dramatic departures. The original arrangement of “Caramel” featured vibes, a gently pulsing samba beat, and a captivating accompaniment including clarinet and trumpet in sugary cushion. Here, we get just a single acoustic guitar, finger snaps, and Vega’s lone voice. The original “99.9” used electronic dance beats, crunching but tightly compressed guitar, filter effects on Vega’s voice—all production techniques that seemed utterly central to the song. The re-recording contains no percussion, no distortion or filtering, just the simplest bass line and acoustic guitar. On both of these songs, the lyrics present with clarity, but some of the contrast and shading that was delicious in the original is missing.
The rule that simpler, more acoustic songs are more successfully recreated here, however, does not hold. “If You Were in My Movie”, also from 99.9Fº, is very different but works better. Without the doubled vocals and slapping percussion, Vega’s spoken-word verses punch harder and stand out more. Sometimes the songs that were spikier with all the studio production turn out to be more urgent in a bare-bone situation.
The most important thing that Close Up establishes, at least in this first incarnation, is that Suzanne Vega has been a consistently brilliant songwriter and storyteller for a quarter century. Whatever nostalgia a middle-aged listener may have for the original records, these songs have a lyric and melodic craft that does not require drums or the repetition of commercial radio.
About now, this middle-aged reviewer might be tempted to make a crack about how kids these days just don’t know what they are missing; how Suzanne Vega is no Lady Gaga (born, for the record, the year after Suzanne Vega was released), and thank goodness for it. But that isn’t necessarily the case. In 1985, Vega may have seemed slight in some ways. 25 years from now, who knows where Stefani Germanotta will be.
But what we know today, and what Close Up makes clear, is that Suzanne Vega deserves to be heard again quite aside from nostalgia. These songs—the intimacy and close observation of “Gypsy”, the assertiveness of “I’ll Never Be (Your Maggie May)”, the weariness of “Bound”—stand up tall.
Maybe if she had appeared on our pop radar at a different time, Suzanne Vega would have the stature of Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro. The bare, acoustic truth is: she’s that good.