Ordinary Magic: Suzanne Vega’s ‘Days of Open Hand’

If Days of Open Hand is an album of dreams, then there's surely the awareness of awakening, a consciousness hovering outside of the songs that is longing to be identified.

Above: Publicity photo. Photographer unknown.

If ‘Days of Open Hand’ is an album of dreams, then there’s surely the awareness of awakening, a consciousness hovering outside of the songs that is longing to be identified.

When Suzanne Vega hit the pinnacle of success with “Luka”, a cautionary song of child abuse, her fate as pop music’s most introspective folk-rocker was pretty much sealed. For many, Vega had reinstated a quiet, insular genre that found devotees of a certain extraction. Folk music was, for a time, a music that spoke to and spoke for a certain generation; a music heated with the political passions that would inform a margin of youth just getting acquainted with the polemics of the world they were living in.

From the opening numbers of her 1985 self-titled debut, it wasn’t all too difficult to see how much Vega had been influenced by the likes of Cohen and Dylan, their equally poetic and direct approach fortified by a need to communicate pressing issues in the most private and personal of ways. Vega’s debut was a set of simple, straightforward numbers, stripped bare of any fussy arrangements and kept to a clean, clear minimum. It registered with many who were still smarting from the stadium rock of giants like U2 or the crop of new wave acts who had already defined an era in pop music.

Unlike her forbearers, however, Vega’s brand of folk music was somewhat aloof in manner; the emotions under examination were considered with a coldly perceptive eye, keeping the listener at a safe and calculated distance from the singer behind the song. And unlike most folk music, Vega made no political statements.

While her debut initiated a cautious and reflective artist into an open sphere populated by a host of less diffident musicians, Vega remained an anomalous talent. Her ability to pen indelible pop melodies was at odds with her chilly, objective readings on the human condition. Most sang the praises of love and romance; Vega’s range of topics included the lives of inanimate objects, the mundane routines of common folk and the effects of mental illness. Her music at once invited and alienated, keeping audiences in an undetermined space of questioning and reasoning.

“Luka”, her single off her sophomore album, 1987’s Solitude Standing, was Vega’s bon-fide hit that would not only mark her as a viable contender in the rock music market, but also prove how a pop-lyric could be grave and deeply sullen while housed in an uptempo, chiming pop-friendly groove. Her tale of a young boy being physically abused at home had hordes of listeners tapping their feet while they spilled their tears. As “Luka” took its parent album to the number 11 spot on the Billboard charts, the singer’s cultishly small folk-music fanbase widened to allow newer admirers into the fold. Suddenly Vega became a household name on the back of this one hit alone and the pressure to reproduce the success of the now legendary song became insurmountable.

After a couple of years of touring and travelling the world in support of Solitude Standing, Vega returned home to settle back down into the routines of pedestrian life and began work on her follow-up to her platinum-selling album. In 1990, Vega released what has been considered to date her most unusual and difficult album. Days of Open Hand, in many ways, was an extension of the more standard rock format the singer had explored on Solitude Standing. Solitude Standing beefed up the brittle, delicate structures of her debut, filling them out with drums and electric guitars to frame her pointedly folkish guitar-playing.

Days of Open Hand did the same but went further by throwing just about every found sound into the pot, culling instruments from almost every continent in the world. Vega’s worldly sound on her third outing was further augmented by the then-cutting edge synthesizers, which offset some of the more traditional instrumentation. The heady mix left many listeners confused.

It wasn’t that Vega had veered off the path entirely; her roots in folk were planted firmly in the soil of which her music grew. It was just that she was now reaching for some element that seemed almost beyond her grasp. Days of Open Hand pulled from sources that hovered just outside the perimeters of the singer’s folk-pop, an ethereal realm which brought not only her sound to a higher atmosphere, but her themes as well. The junk-shop eclecticism of Days would have Vega and producer Anton Sanko dipping their writerly hands into various cultures; drums from around the world kept time with Mediterranean guitars and Asian flutes. At the very centre was Vega’s pristine-playing, an assured plucking of chords that mirrored the singer’s own cool, crisp delivery.

In interviews, Vega mentioned that the album was written during a time when she was doing a lot of sleeping and dreaming. Opening number “Tired of Sleeping” articulated this headspace of reverie in which the singer described a wealth of Freudian fears. Here a young woman, trapped in a feverish dream-world of surreal undertakings, sends a panicked plea to a distant maternal force for help. The Parisian middle-eight, featuring a lone accordion, ushers the final depletive fear into the number’s sleepy-eyed waltz.

“The bird on the string is hanging,” Vega sings. “Her bones are twisting and dancing, she’s fighting for her small life.” And so begins the album. Its exhaustive fears, its wrangling with the unknown and the claustrophobic desires reach a sea-level of emotional tumult, edging the singer closer to the very rims of her phantasmagoric dreamworld. Realized fears present themselves in “Men in a War”, a song that initially seems to be about post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans but is later revealed to be about the long-suffering laments on any loss that compromises a life. It is a song of deep anxieties that trouble sleep, fears that reveal truth in the radiance of dreams but are then obscured by the light of day.

The process in which abstracted dreams take form begins with the unstructured narrative of “Rusted Pipe”, a personal dialogue on the nature of communication, how the beginnings of human exchange often derail the objectives of human relations. On “Rusted Pipe”, Vega uses dream-speak, a strange course of logic which draws a shaky, perturbed line of language around the idea of interaction: “Water could make the sense that I do; gurgle, mutter, hiss, stutter, moan the words like water, rush and foam and choke…” Marimba-laced and edged-through with percussive clatter, the song builds up from a fractured rhythm to a sharp and steady groove, its principle melody the workings of a Hammond C3.

“Book of Dreams”, is the fully formed dream that descends from the theta of “Tired of Sleeping” and “Rusted Pipe”, the submerging into delta state where memory and creation merge in a frequency firing off behind the walls of consciousness. A sparkling pop tune recounting the methodology of dream-recall, it was reportedly inspired by XTC’s Oranges and Lemons, written with the intent of being a single, which it eventually was.

Because most of Vega’s music works from a point that seems thoroughly objective, it is often hard to work out where the line between subjective feelings and the conditions observed lies. This makes a song like “Institution Green” an exercise in decoding emotional semiotics. A detached reading on the humiliation felt from the systematic filing of human data, “Institution Green” finds the singer at her most removed. A cold, chilly account of being held captive by a process of order in a hospital, a police station, a mental institution or a voting terminal, Vega imparts the feelings of being relegated to a statistic, a numerical figure on a chart.

To drive the point further, the song is fraught with discordant emotion; eerie rattles of stray noise ricochet around in the mix. They sound like echoes rebounding from the walls of deserted buildings. There’s also an unsettling shift in tempo as a slow, circular martial beat makes a break for it in a panicked, desperate run during its chorus. All pleas for psychic release are written on the walls in Vega’s mind.

These mental terrors blossom into the calculated rage of “Those Whole Girls”. Simple, sparse and evenly measured, the song’s cool, mannered phrasings belie the feelings of anxiety, helplessness and fear. Seemingly a narrative on the ruthless pack-mentality of young women, Vega imparts her targets with the sentiments of repressed rage. The precise plucks of the guitar cut through the hollow atmosphere like the quick stabs of a knife and the song is over before the hostility can brim with emotional overspill. “Those Whole Girls” marks the second half of the album, where the dreams darken and the atmosphere thickens.

Within the psychic confusion there is still the romantic flush of a songwriter who yearns for the requiems that are love songs. “Room Off the Street” (which was originally titled “Cuba”), deals with the story of a revolutionary and his lover who are engaged in a heated debate, either on the matters of politics or love (taking place, no doubt, in Cuba). Vega, at once a far removed character and omniscient narrator, sketches out the details of claustrophobic lives caught up in the sweep of protest and passions: “Every sigh, every sway, you can hear everything that they say…”

With the gentle exotica of the neys, hand drums and Latin-inspired playing, Vega makes a pointed reference of “othered” cultures examined through the precepts of Western doctrines but ultimately refracted and reborn through the acumen of dreams. We have here what is at once a pop song and a deeply personal frame from a troubled stream-of-consciousness, a recalling of some invented memory that replays on a moving scrim of subliminal space.

The nucleus of the album’s thematic schema hinges upon the amorphous movements of “Big Space”, a ghostly plume of sound oscillation which has the singer pulling apart and reassembling the logics of feeling, thought and sensation. Lost in the eerie fog of fairlight synthesizers, the silvery strains of guitar hover momentarily before being submerged into the vapours of sound.

Vega considers the various ways in which physical sensations become disembodied from their respective emotions, how desires rewire those sensations to incongruent emotions. Moreover, she imagines human motive as a hollow centre, something at once tangible and non-existent: “Close to the middle of the network, it seems we’re looking for a center, what if it turns out to be hollow?…Between the pen and the paperwork, there must be passion in the language…”

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.