Over 20 years have passed since Suzanne Vega leapt from Greenwich Village storyteller to global superstar, and so she can now be accurately described as something of an elder stateswoman of folk. She may have been rather quiet for the last few years (her last album, Songs Of Red And Grey, was released way back in 2001), but she has remained a pioneering influence, recently becoming the first musician to perform live in the online world of Second Life.
Actions such as this, and her willingness to embrace dance music with the DNA remix of Tom’s Diner in 1991, have meant that she’s never become as stale as some of her contemporaries. Yet for her first release for legendary American label Blue Note, she’s wisely stuck to what she knows best – indeed, this could almost be a continuation of the gentle folk of Songs Of Red And Grey, albeit with a huge gap inbetween.
As you’d expect from a songwriter so vividly associated with New York, and one whose last studio album was released in those hazy pre 9/11 days, there’s a huge focus on how the city has changed in those 6 years. Anniversary is probably the most explicit statement on the tragedy, but there’s an echo of 9/11 in many of these songs, from New York Is A Woman to the poignant Angel’s Doorway.
Opener Zephyr And I also references 9/11, namely the “fireman’s monument, where all the fatherless teenagers go”. The tone is upbeat and optimistic, yet the lyrics are wistful, sad and poignant. Vocal harmonies by none other than KT Tunstall add to the slightly dreamy feel of the song. Edith Wharton’s Figurines (and how’s that for a quintessential Vega title?) is a typically complex study of female vanity, inspired by both the New York author and Olivia Goldsmith, the writer who died after complications arose from routine plastic surgery.
Like most of Vega’s songs, the tracks here take their time to sink in. While the lovely melodies and Vega’s hushed vocals make it perfectly good background music, to achieve the full effect you have to listen to those lyrics – she’s one of the finest lyricists of recent times (more poet than songwriter in fact), and one who can just as easily write a love song for her daughter (As You Are Now) as study the turbulent relationship of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardener (Frank & Ava) – and do both brilliantly.
Possibly the best example of Vega’s lyrical mastery is New York Is A Woman, which perfectly casts the Big Apple in the role of a tough, strong woman – one that’s taken a few knocks but is still standing. Lines like “she’s every girl you’ve seen in every movie” impeccably convey the strange sense of familiarity you experience when you first set foot on the streets of Manhattan.
There’s some decent variety of sounds here too, switching effortlessly from the dramatic string-backed Bound to the dance beats of Unbound, which recall her best work of 99.9F. Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo contributes some shimmering guitar riffs on Angel’s Doorway, while the more traditional sound of Vega accompanied by an acoustic guitar can be heard on As You Are Now.
Some people may say that, in 2007 with its cast of feisty female singers, we don’t really need Suzanne Vega, with her polite, literate music. Those people are wrong – the last 6 years have been a lot poorer for her absence, and it’s good to welcome back one of the premier songwriting talents of this generation.