New York’s Own Miniaturist

Suzanne Vega
Original release: 1985

I’ve decided to expand a character-constricted record review that originally was posted on emusic. The motivation may be ego, the result may be folly, but I need to try.

In 1985, the then 25- or 26-year old Suzanne Vega released her first, self-titled album on A&M. New Wave and Punk were dead, Grunge was half a dozen years away, haircut bands in tight trousers roamed the land. If, like me, you had spent the last ten years learning by listening that songs could be about something it was a dismal time for all but roots music.

Then this album appeared and what instantly  struck me was the sound. A voice. A guitar. And a band. All with plenty of space to showcase the songs.

And the songs were fabulous. Tightly scripted, inhabited by familiar but original characters, and distinctly New York.  Vega is a native New Yorker and the city that was–not the Disneyfied, Bloombergian, tourist-friendly Manhattan of today–is never far away in these songs.

That’s best demonstrated by Neighborhood Girls, a song about the sort of lasses who ‘hang out down at McKenzie’s bar.’ Vega manages to sketch a portrait remarkably free of judgement and full of empathy. ‘We were interested in her/ and her clientele’…  ‘she said to me/There’s a backbone gone/And I’ve got to get it back/Before going on…’ A complete world in three minutes twenty.

Or take the album’s masterpiece,  Marlene on the Wall. Produced, in retrospect, like a hit single, the song is much more. Take the oblique tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen in the title.  And then there’s the chorus, focused on Marelene’s ‘mocking smile’ that ‘says it all/ as she records the rise and fall/ of every soldier passing.’ Listen twice and tell me you’re sure about what that rise and fall is.

The album’ s third gem, for me, is  Small Blue Thing and in this case it’s the sound maybe more than the words. I saw Suzanne Vega perform live after this album was released at the now long defunct My Father’s Place and SBT was the opener. I remember being astonished by the way the bass at the beginning of the song, which emerges from near silence, reached out and enveloped the entire room. If music is about the space between the notes as well as the notes this song is a master class in maximizing the use of it.

One could pick nits. There’s a lot of chess board, soldier and related imagery that smacks of the Barnard English major she is. That sort of obviousness recedes on the later albums and I think they’re better for that. In some ways this record, and the more successful (but to me less meaningful) Solitude Standing set the stage for Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin and the wave of female singer-songwriters that started emerging in the latter part of the 1980s.

One final note that’s more about the state of the music business. The bad contracts of yore left the record companies owning the masters. So artists don’t profit, or even earn a modest stipend, when their earlier efforts sell. Vega has begun to re-record her earlier work in what she’s calling the Close Up series. The lion’s share of the income is hers on these volumes.

It’s often hard to separate the song from the performance or recording that first caught your ear. These songs stand up to being revisited. Get both versions and enjoy.


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