Before Tracy Chapman, before Ani DiFranco, even before Tanita Tikaram (remember her?), there was Suzanne Vega. Her folky, restrained music and intelligent lyrics struck a chord with anybody in 1986 who was sick of a-ha and Chris De Burgh.
Over the last 17 years she’s released six albums, and although not all of them have hit the commercial heights of Luka or Marlene On The Wall, she can lay claim to being one of the more influential figures around today.
This collection is a perfect place to start if you’ve somehow managed never to hear the beautiful music of Suzanne Vega. Although the last ‘Best Of’ collection wasn’t released that long ago (1998’s Tried And True), this has a much more representative track listing.
Pretty much all of Vega’s notable songs are here, from the early hits such as Luka to the highlights of the under-rated last album Songs Of Red And Gray. Vega’s only Top 3 hit is also here, the DNA remix of Tom’s Diner. Although DNA gave the song a commercial sheen, it did rather rob it of the original’s a cappella charm.
What sets Vega apart from the rest of the ‘Lilith Fair’ gang is her lyrics. Many other songwriters have fancied themselves as poets, but Vega is one of the few who could legitimately describe herself as such.
Material such as the wonderfully evocative In Liverpool or The Queen And The Soldier are a pleasure to read as well as listen to. Moreover, Vega is possibly the only songwriter who could write a song from the perspective of a Greek nymph stuck on an island (Calypso) and not come across as impossibly pretentious.
Only the most hardcore of Vega completists would be disappointed with Retrospective. As well as hard to find rarities such as Woman On The Tier (previously only available on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack) and Rosemary, there’s a bonus live CD also included with the UK release.
Although this CD does reflect Vega’s warmness with an audience, it would have been nice to have some different tracks on here from the main disc (Caramel, Solitude Standing, In Liverpool and Blood Makes Noise are all duplicated). However, we also get a brand new song called Anniversary, which is as good as a song as she’s ever done.
With material this good it’s hard to level any criticisms at Retrospective. There are some rather pretentious sleeve notes from Lenny Kaye (as Vega is such a good writer, it would have been nice to hear her thoughts on these songs), and the lack of a chronological order means that we don’t hear how Vega’s sound has developed over the years.
These are minor quibbles however – musically, this is a nigh on perfect summation of one of the most talented songwriters of the last 20 years. Long may she continue.