On the pop music landscape, 1987 saw the release of some gargantuan albums, records that scarcely need apologetics for inclusion in the canon of classic albums. The year saw U2‘s The Joshua Tree, the grand and sweeping spiritual meditation on America that propelled the band to superstardom. Arguably the most dynamic musical force in popular music, Michael Jackson released Bad in 1987. This album produced a record-breaking five number-one singles and retrospectively would be the zenith of his cultural and musical prowess in the decade.
Prince flexed his wings post-separation from the Revolution with the stunning double album, Sign O’ the Times, with its array of funk, soul, R&B, rock, and pop. There were several substantial commercial and critical splashes in popular music that year, including R.E.M’s Document, Sinead O’Connor’s The Lion and the Cobra, Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun, Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction, and Kick by INXS to name just a few.
Amid these grand musical gestures, Suzanne Vega‘s quiet, elegant, reflective sophomore effort, Solitude Standing, emerged on 1 April 1987. Its poetic minimalism and fusion of the folk influences of acoustic guitar and synthesizer beats broke into pop culture awareness through the notable success of the second track, “Luka”, which garnered Vega her highest spot on the charts topping at number three. “Luka”, like much of the themes of Solitude Standing, was a paradox—a song narrated by a child set in a hypnotically pleasant pop rhythm that quite literally performs visceral unease and cognitive dissonance in the hearer as the narrative voice’s indirection and evasiveness hinted at abuse and vulnerability.
Within this subtle and minimalist poetics, a question emerges. How do you make a case for the importance of Suzanne Vega’s sophomore album, Solitude Standing? It is equal parts mundane and mysterious, enigmatic and illuminating. The interplay of light and darkness, silence and language play out within it. A key track for experiencing the album is the eighth one, “Language”, where Vega as songwriter and philosopher, wrestles with the mystery of language’s limits and longs for a more fluid relationship between words and expression:
If language were liquid
It would be rushing in.
Instead, here we are
In a silence, more eloquent
Than any word could ever be.
These words are too solid.Suzanne Vega – “Language”
They don’t move fast enough.
To catch the blur in the brain
That flies by and is gone.
It is quiet, unassuming. Who is speaking to us? What are they saying? To call this folk music may be temporarily helpful. It certainly has traces of it, the acoustic guitar and the breathy vocals. But this designation is not wholly adequate to frame her as merely a singer/songwriter. Critics have credited Vega with ushering in a new female folk movement, opening space for Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls. While technically accurate, it seems inadequate to the subtle heft of this album.
It is not that either folk or singer/songwriter are unfair descriptions. Vega credits Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro as early and continuing influences. But she also is equally enthusiastic in crediting the influence of Lou Reed and his 1973 album, Berlin, whose full-frontal starkness contrasted with the often complexly metaphorical Dylan. In a 2021 interview with WYPR podcast Essential Tremors, she also credited the influence of Philip Glass’ minimalist compositions, whose work she called “incantatory” and whose use of repetition with difference affected the writing of Solitude Standing.
While folk and singer/songwriter are not inaccurate designations, I want to argue that Suzanne Vega emerges as a postmodern artist with this album. There is a degree of effacement in her lyrics precisely at the point of self-revelation. Her songs are poems, extended koans, and observational narratives of the mundane. She complains about the clumsy solidity of words in “Language” and longs for a reality where language is more malleable and less clunky. A place where she wishes it would rush in like a river’s torrent to keep pace with the “blur in the brain”. The song laments that words are mere crust, a baked covering that conceals, but hardly reveals, alleged layers of meaning underneath that are inaccessible.
But what if that desire for the heart of the matter is an illusion? A grand illusion, perhaps, that drives much of our thought and action, but a fruitless quest for essential meaning nonetheless. What if language is this eternal Promethean interplay between the seeming clumsy solidity of words and the silence that exposes that clumsiness? Like the words of the song itself, language unravels itself most beautifully when, in self-reflexive irony, it turns on itself to expose that—despite their clunky solidity—words are not easily arranged into solid foundations with no movement, uncertainty, and shifting fault lines. And yet, like the seemingly unconnected and random observational narrative in “Tom’s Diner”, language can play with the ordinary at the threshold of the literal and the poetic, where language’s awkwardness gives way to the chimera of fluidity. If it were liquid, it would be rushing in. But, here we are with this talented artist on the threshold of “a silence more eloquent than any word could ever be”.
Vega’s work is deceptive in its simplicity. These 12 songs are not just a collection of observational insights by a gifted singer/songwriter, nor are they just an exercise in minimalism. In track eight, “Language”, we discover how Solitude Standing is pop music’s demonstration of the “linguistic turn” in philosophy, wrestling with the recognition that language is not a transparent medium of thought and feeling. It flails and fails. And, yet language locks us into an inevitable relationship with it. It shapes and forms us through its play of differing sounds and symbols but is never determinative. There is always a surplus, a deferral that leaves open possibilities unthought for now.
As read through the lyrics of “Language”, the irony of the album is the irony of ourselves within this morass of words. We voice the limits of language within language itself. There is no step outside of this entanglement with words, yet in this eternal wrestling with our linguistic nature, we, like the biblical figure of Jacob, experience blessing and curse within the struggle. These paradoxes (blessing/curse, light/darkness, revelation/concealment) are in play in this unassuming but masterful album.
Vega’s album is a 1980s album different from those mentioned above. It is not some grand gesture but is subtle, unassuming. Yet, it performs the postmodern experience within culture and philosophy within its observational lyrics. Despite the revolutionary impact of MTV in the decade, Vega’s album is in many ways an awkward fit for the new medium. The video for “Tom’s Diner” is visually unimaginative, with the artist in a blue jumpsuit over a striped shirt standing next to a makeshift counter and a frosted glass window imprinted with the song’s title on an empty soundstage. The visual accompaniment of Vega’s acapella narrative of the random and the mundane is a distraction. Despite “Luka” receiving the award for best female video in 1988, the addition of visuals seems to do too much, forcing a recognition where the song’s subtlety and play of language, tone, and theme pack a more powerful impact.
Vega’s recognition in her writing of the communicative power of indirection and repetition renders her work more potent than direct approaches. Take the breakout hit, “Luka”, which wasn’t the only pop music single to deal with child abuse in 1987. In July of that year, 10,000 Maniacs released In My Tribe, whose opening song, “What’s the Matter Here?” also dealt with a boy in an abusive situation. Still, its more direct presentation of the topic in the narrator’s third-party condemnation of the problem could seem heavy-handed and detached.
By contrast, Vega’s indirectness is simultaneously evasive and profoundly vulnerable. The violence haunts the song and the listener, and wrapping it in infectious hooks only underscores the daily interplay of violence that often co-exists with surface pleasantry. Vega herself was reticent for years to offer a definitive figure who stood behind “Luka” as real-life inspiration, instead of letting the lyrical figure cast a broken, observational narrative in which so many listeners found their voice and story affirmed. It is only recently, in podcast interviews like the June 2021 Your Hometown with Kevin Burke, that she admitted that Luka’s story and her own story with her step-father, Ed Vega, were connected.
These ephemeral gestures at the interplay of connection and estrangement permeate this album. Suzanne Vega’s writing and presentation display her training in both theatre and dance. From her command of dialogue to her breathy enunciation, she shows language in all its material and immaterial mystery. The personification of solitude in the title track evokes disconnection and longing for an elusive and possibly elusive self. When solitude turns with her hand extended, she reveals a palm split with a flower and a flame. Again, this literate and minimalistic album reminds us of the language’s (and our own) opacity. The reference to the tarot is a call to interpret, to focus attention on the every day and the exceptional.
By taking the framework of humanity’s struggle with and entanglement with language as a metaphorical overlay in which to engage this unassuming album, Suzanne Vega takes the listener into the richness of the human mystery and asks us to listen to the music in silence and to encounter the communion of solitude. The demand for language’s fluidity in the eighth track is deceptive if we take it as an obstacle to be overcome. Perhaps, it is a paradox to be lived where we might find, for instance, that a song like “Calypso” (crudely translated, “she who conceals”) has something to say to us.
Solitude Standing is a quiet work that speaks in the gaps and silences of language and lays bare in concealment. It rewards multiple listening and is framed by and embodies paradox. It begins with the observational randomness of “Tom’s Diner” sans accompanying instrumentality and ends with a repetition of the song with a difference; we experience the wordless music discovered in the random words that mark our inchoate experiences. Thirty-five years after its premiere, Suzanne Vega’s literate, minimalist gem is fresh and worth revisiting. A product of its time but not bound by it, the album invites us, in the words of its eighth track, to meet “in a timeless, placeless place / Somewhere out of context / And beyond all Consequences”. It is an essential work from one of popular music’s most gifted artists.