Call Suzanne Vega uneasy listening. Beneath the pretty, acoustic-based melodies on her debut album, Suzanne Vega, released two years ago, was a series of impressionistic images: a jilted lover crying in a hallway ("Knight Moves"), a framed photograph acting as a caustic observer of the narrator's love life ("Marlene on the Wall"), someone walking shellshocked through a park ("Cracking"). Add to that Vega's soft, distanced voice, set to her own brittle acoustic guitar and understated, almost gothic arrangements, and the result was the most striking singer-songwriter debut since the genre's early-Seventies heyday.
Solitude Standing, Vega's long-awaited second album, ups the ante. Following up on the sound of "Left of Center," the atypically rock & roll track (it was a British hit single) she contributed to the John Hughes film Pretty in Pink, the production is beefier, with an in-your-face drum mix and more emphasis on synths and electric guitars. But surface gloss notwithstanding, Vega hasn't changed all that much. On initial listen, "Luka," the first single, seems an upbeat folkrock number with a killer hook of a chorus. Then you notice the lyrics: "They only hit until you cry/And after that you don't ask why/You just don't argue anymore." Only a writer as skillful and subtle as Vega could write a potent song about child abuse that gets your feet tapping while putting across its point.
As a high-tech record clearly designed to surpass the 250,000 domestic sales of Vega's debut, Solitude Standing walks its own fine line. Due to Vega's case of writer's block (the song credits span a decade, and many of the later songs were co-written by members of her new band), it's shakier and less focused than Suzanne Vega. Perhaps that's understandable: the trail of Greenwich Village singer-songwriters who've aimed for Top Forty success is littered with casualties. Even the packaging Vega as demure chanteuse in the soft-focus front-cover photo, as dark-clothed street waif on the back seems to hedge its bets. But in juxtaposing old and new material, Solitude Standing unwittingly shows where Vega has been and where she's going, and that's the good news.
The old Vega, the one who made her name in the moribund New York folk community in the early Eighties, can be heard in the album's two oldest songs, both written in 1978: "Gypsy" (coproduced by Mitch Easter and Steve Addabbo during some early sessions for the LP) and "Calypso." The former, a pretty but lightweight lullaby to a teacher-lover, finds her mewling lines like "You come from far away/With pictures in your eyes/Of coffeeshops and morning streets/In the blue and silent sunrise." And "Calypso" features a treacly arrangement of mellow guitars and tinkling synths that only serves to draw attention to the song's cloying lyrics, in which Vega takes the part of a nymph in The Odyssey.
In "Night Vision," Vega sings, "Half the world in sweetness/The other in fear." Fortunately, Solitude Standing delves more into the latter than the former. The lilting "Ironbound/Fancy Poultry" balances a melody reminiscent of mid-Seventies Paul Simon with a gloomy description of a woman walking through a Newark, New Jersey, poultry market that's "bound up in iron and wire and fate." "In the Eye," a taut song that recalls "Left of Center," finds her staring down a potential assailant, while in "Solitude Standing" loneliness takes the form of a specter haunting Vega's home: "And she takes my wrist, I feel her imprint of fear/And I say, 'I've never thought of finding you here.'"
Vega's half-whispered performance on "Solitude Standing" shows how she can use the cool, aloof qualities in her voice to best advantage. Similarly, on the a cappella opener, "Tom's Diner" which finds her observing customers and passers-by in an Upper West Side diner as she sips coffee and drifts off into memories of a former lover, snapping back to reality just in time to catch the train her almost emotionless singing slows down and speeds up like a ride on a rickety subway. On songs like "Luka" and "In the Eye," her unflinchingly direct voice gets right to the matter, and even "Calypso" sports one of her most sensual vocals.
Given the airiness of Vega's voice and guitar playing, it would seem easy to overpower her in the studio; fortunately, the production of Steve Addabbo, a longtime associate and former band member, and Lenny Kaye achieves just the right balance. Unlike their work on Suzanne Vega, which sounds quaint in comparison, the arrangements here are hard edged but never grating. Marc Shulman's jagged guitar lines and Anton Sanko's eerie synths are perfect touches, even if Vega's group (which also includes bassist Michael Visceglia and drummer Stephen Ferrera) hasn't yet found its own voice.
Addabbo and Kaye's deft touch is perhaps best displayed on "Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser's Song)," the album's penultimate track and one of Vega's most chilling songs. One of the last songs written for the album, it's miles apart from the gentle folksiness of "Gypsy"; if anything, its tribal bass and drum backup recall Joni Mitchell's similarly gripping "Dreamland," from her LP Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Taking the role of the title character a seventeen-year-old boy with no apparent background who was found wandering the streets of Nuremberg, Germany, in 1828, and who was said to have been locked up in a basement since infancy Vega sings, "If you could tell them this/That what was wood became alive." Considering Vega's own growth as a singer and writer, those lines take on added significance.
"Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser's Song)" would have made an ideal finale for the album, but that honor goes instead to an instrumental cuckoo-clock version of "Tom's Diner." This, along with a few other gaffes such as the prissy Poetry 101 of "Night Vision" reveals that Vega's music still needs a bit of fine tuning. In the meantime, Suzanne Vega has managed to beat the sophomore jinx while giving the singer-songwriter a good name once again. (RS 502)
(Posted: Jun 18, 1987)
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