Although many artists have been “cursed” with achieving a Top 10 hit and have spent the rest of their career trying desperately to recapture the magic that resulted in such success, Suzanne Vega hasn’t. She’s just tried to be herself and, simultaneously, figure out exactly what she wants to do with her music. When Vega first emerged on the New York folk scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s, no one really knew what to make of her. Certainly, she wasn’t a folk artist in the traditional sense, or, perhaps more specifically, she wasn’t going to be restrained by the traditional definition of what a folk artist is supposed to be.
As Lenny Kaye writes of her early days in the liner notes to Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega, “she listens to Lou Reed as well as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen segueing Woody Guthrie, the Police, the Smiths. She is a modern girl, living in her present tense, playing a music that seems to venerate old-timey tradition. She thinks of herself as a ‘solitary troubadour,’ and wants to be on her own, to be able to ‘pick up my guitar, and get on a bus, and go anywhere, and play by myself”. It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone that, when a band with aspirations to be the next Fleetwood Mac tried to get Vega to be their Stevie Nicks, it just wasn’t happenin’.
Suzanne Vega’s self-titled debut, released in 1985, spawned a surprise hit in the UK with “Marlene in the Wall”; in fact, Vega performed the song at the Prince’s Trust 10th Anniversary Party.
Following that, she turned heads there and on these shores with her contribution to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack: “Left of Center”, which featured piano from Joe Jackson. The song’s lyrics spoke of the outsider characters in the film, as well as to the real-life Andies and Duckies in the audience.
When they ask me, “What are you looking at?”
I always answer, “Nothing much.” (Not much.)
I think they know that I’m looking at them
I think they think I must be out of touch
But I’m only in the outskirts and in the fringes
On the edge and off the avenue
And if you want me, you can find me
Left of center, wondering about you
It was Vega’s sophomore record, Solitude Standing, however, that really did the trick for her in the U.S.
On the topic of her hit single, Vega told The Berkshire Eagle in 2002 that the “success was much bigger than I expected it to be, and it was the type of success I assumed I wouldn’t have. The annoying thing about it is that people want you to keep doing it”. That frustration could be heard to a certain extent on her follow-up album, Days of Open Hand, where she tried to expand the form of the pop song (certainly, “Book of Dreams” deserved to scale the upper reaches of the charts), and, though she succeeded far more often than she failed, the results didn’t translate to sales that matched Solitude Standing.
It probably also didn’t help any that Days of Open Hand hadn’t even been in stores for six months before a vaguely-trip-hop version of “Tom’s Diner”, a song from Solitude Standing, was taken into the charts courtesy of remixers DNA.
Though she didn’t really have any hand in it, there’s reason to argue that she was influenced somewhat by the sound of the new version of “Tom’s Diner”; her next album, 1992’s 99.9 F, was decidedly more experimental in feel. Produced by Mitchell Froom, who would go on to become Mr. Suzanne Vega, it was a successful experiment by the estimation of most critics, but, again, it didn’t translate into significant sales figures. The subsequent album, 1996’s Nine Objects of Desire didn’t turn the trend around.
By the time Vega returned in 2001 with Songs in Red and Gray, so had her trademark folk-pop sound, but Froom had not. Not as producer, nor as significant other. The result was an album with Vega’s most personal lyrics in years, with Rupert Hine handling duties on the boards.
Retrospective is the second collection of Suzanne Vega’s greatest hits, but it’s the first to be released in the US. Tried and True emerged onto the UK market in 1999 and features a relatively similar track listing and running order. The only tracks that didn’t make the transition onto Retrospective were “When Heroes Go Down” (a rather inexcusable omission, given that it was actually released as a single) and “Book & a Cover” (which is only available on Tried & True, therefore still making it indispensable for the Vega fan who has to own everything).
Retrospective is, even with its mild fault in the inclusion of its selections, an excellent sampler of Suzanne Vega’s career for the casual fan and a fine introduction for anyone who seeks exposure to one of the most consistent female artists of the ’80s and ’90s.
NOTE: A&M has already opted to reissue Retrospective in a deluxe format… everywhere in the world except for North America. This deluxe version of the album contains a second disc of an additional 19 songs (including the elusive “When Heroes Go Down”, although, predictably, “Book & a Cover” still remains MIA) as well as a DVD of 12 of Vega’s videos. To date, there has been no mention of a release date in the US. Thanks, A&M for nothing.