Unlike Suzanne Vega’s previous albums, Songs in Red and Gray comes with a lot of public baggage. Since 1996’s wonderful Nine Objects of Desire, Vega divorced her longtime husband and producer, Mitchell Froom. The impact on her personal life is obvious — and Songs certainly lends itself to biographical interpretation better than any previous Vega album — but Froom was also an integral part of Vega’s sound. The increasingly lush intricacy of Vega’s work that began with 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees was the result of two highly creative minds working in tandem. Froom’s submerged and distorted drum sound, his thick layers of muted sounds, had become just as much a part of Vega’s artistic identity as her lyrics and voice.
Vega is an artist who likes to keep her personal life separate from her art, as much as that’s possible for any artist, preferring masks and personas to give her distance. On the new disc’s “(I’ll Never Be Your) Maggie May”, she even wishes, “I’d rather take myself away / Be like those ladies in Japan / Rather paint myself a face / Conjure up some grace / Or be the eyes behind a fan”. A creature of the limelight she isn’t, wasn’t, and will never be. With Songs in Red and Gray, she’s been forced to acknowledge that real situations and emotions led to the music. Some songs, she’s had to admit, are directly about the increasing tensions between herself and Froom.
You don’t need the interviews to see that, though. “Widow’s Walk” states pretty clearly, “Consider me a widow, boys / And I will tell you why / It’s not the man, but it’s the marriage / that was drowned”. “Soap and Water” observes, “Wash the year from my life / Straighten all that we trampled and tore / Heal the cut we call husband and wife.” In that same song, it’s not hard to see Vega’s own daughter addressed in the lines, “Daddy’s a dark riddle / Mama’s a handful of thorns / You are my little kite / Caught up once again in the / Household storms”. Even if Vega maintains that many of her Songs in Red and Gray aren’t strictly autobiographical, the album makes a strong case for the role of the subconscious in a person’s art. The sense of dissolution, of seeing things fall apart and being unable or unwilling to do anything about it, pervades this record.
It’s not a dour record, though. If anything, the mood of Songs in Red and Gray is arguably very upbeat. Perhaps it’s a method of distancing herself, but Vega rarely wallows. Bass lines pulse throughout, robust strings abound, and the instrumentation is generally very bright. Sonically, the album isn’t that far from the rich production that Froom brought to the table, and it’s something of a testament to Vega’s clear sense of artistic vision that she didn’t chuck those assets out of spite. To new producer Rupert Hine’s credit Songs strikes a nice middle ground between the folksy clarity of Vega’s early years and the more ambitious soundscapes of her last 10 years.
However, it’s probably in the production that any real criticisms lie. It can be overly slick sometimes, and not as brazen or ambitious as past highlights from Vega’s catalog like “Blood Makes Noise”, “Caramel”, or “World Before Columbus”. A few too many rough edges are smoothed out on Songs, and it dilutes the power some of these songs hold. Exceptions like “Last Year’s Troubles” (with a great stanza about Dickensian waifs), her mandolin-laced recitation of Jack Hardy’s “St. Clare”, and the fatalistic clarity of “Soap and Water” are wonders that are too few and far between. You get the sense that many of the tracks on Songs in Red and Gray could go in either direction — starkly acoustic or raggedly hyperactive — and unleash much more power than they do here.
Still, it’s a landmark of sorts for Vega. Not only are her lyrics arguably more personal this time, but they’re some of the best she’s ever written. There’s dark poetry on this album, fed with reds of passion and grays of emotional devastation. Give it more than a few listens; for all its faults, it has corners and pockets waiting where Vega says things so perfectly, you can’t believe they’ve never been said before. Production quibbles aside, there are some fine songs here, and it would be a shame for them to go unheard.