Last week was Tom Petty and so AmericanA to Z reaches the letter U. And since Uncle Tupelo have been covered already, skips directly to V. It was that or The Upsetters, and really that was a stretch too far even for our generous definition of Americana. Instead, let’s go back to the mid-eighties and a sad time for female singer-songwriters. Joni had put out the reasonable ‘Wild Things Run Fast‘, had the patchy ‘Dog Eat Dog‘ ready to go and would follow this up with the ho-hum ‘Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm‘ – Joni’s doing covers and using co-writers? Not good. If she were ever really the next big thing Carly Simon had got into a rut of banal songs for movies – with ‘Coming Around Again‘ only a partial exception.
Joan Baez hadn’t released anything for 6 years; having flirted with disco – and got a big hit – Janis Ian was heading for obscurity. And, let’s be honest, these were the last generation’s big names. Where were the new American voices of a new generation? In the UK we had Kate Bush to satisfy the thoughts of the would be intellectuals, but where were the women with the big folk guitars?
Suzanne Vega could have seemed almost a perfect manufactured fit for this gap – but the Santa Monica born, New York raised singer had done it the right way – bashing out tunes in Greenwich Village and being a part of the Fast Folk musical collective. She can be found on the Smithsonian Folkways release of archive recordings ‘Fast Folk: A Community of Singers & Songwriters‘ – nestling up against Steve Forbert on the second CD of the collection. The next step was getting signed to A&M and the release in 1985 of a stunning eponymous debut album – filled with cut-glass analysis of relationships, allegorical tales and observations of New York life. And it was very much a creation of “now” – a youthful voice reinvigorating a poetic singer-songwriter style, and if it spoke of relationships it did it in the way of Dylan – obliquely – rather than the soap opera details that had become the standard “hey, at least I got a song out of it” response to failed love affairs. The live reaction to Suzanne Vega was often the pin-drop quiet of a spellbound audience lingering on every word, as Suzanne Vega made the largest of venues seem as intimate as a coffee shop gig. – there was magic in the air.
This new poetic folk voice was anything but accidental – Suzanne Vega brought an intellect to bear on the development of her craft into art, as she described in an essay in ‘Bullet in Flight‘, the collected poems of her first three albums:”Mostly what I’m trying to do is look for points of view that I don’t think have been uncovered before in songs. and I’m trying to talk about feelings or things that I think are vital, but keep them hard and clear. If I find myself lapsing into sentimentality in my writing, I try to strip it away as quickly as I can. These days I’m trying to use the language as though it were a piece of wood, and I craft it, I hone it down. I sand it, I polish it, and I make sure there are no cracks, no extra pieces or frills.”
Following up her debut with the equally dazzling ‘Solitude Standing‘ as well as singles such as ‘Left of Centre‘ cemented Vega as more than a single flash of talent. Not that she was a one-trick pony, as the albums ‘99.9F°‘ and ‘Nine Objects of Desire‘ would demonstrate Suzanne Vega had no lack of interest in experimenting with different sounds, different rhythms and different approaches to language. Having departed from A&M at the turn of the century, Suzanne Vega’s next four albums were re-recordings of her earlier songs to better reflect the folkier, or at least stripped back, presentation that they now received in concert. Never having fallen into the trap of overdoing the synthesizers in the eighties there wasn’t so very much to take away, but there’s a deeper tone to the songs reflecting the passage of time – anyone who loved the originals would want to hear these new takes as well – they detract nothing from the memory.
When, in 2014, she entered the studio with new material it was to record ‘Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles‘ which was an incredibly strong return – this was an album that was nurtured by the same wellspring of allegory that had marked her first two albums as touched by poetic brilliance. Very few artists can be found presenting some of the strongest songs in their repertoire nearly 40 years after their debut album, but Suzanne Vega is numbered among those.
Key Recordings: well, everything mentioned above, and both ‘Days of Open Hand‘ and ‘Songs in Red and Grey‘ are pretty good too. Basically everything is worth hearing.
‘Small Blue Thing‘ from her debut album is from the puzzle wrapped in an enigma school of art that is so challenging to try and unwrap. Just what is Suzanne Vega singing about – her explanation that she was “trying to write and sing in the voice of a small blue thing” hardly helps with the unravelling.
‘Left of Centre‘, a co-write with her producer Steve Addabbo, featured in the film ‘Pretty in Pink‘, but feels more like a political anthem for a generation buried under the world vision of Reagen and Thatcher. “What are we rebelling against ? Everything.”
‘Fool’s Complaint‘, a trawl through the twists and turns of life based on the imagery of the Tarot deck, was a highlight of the superb ‘Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles‘.
For U, there’s always the Unholy Modal Rounders, whose album ‘Have Moicy!’ with Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Fredericks and the Clamtones is surely a stone(r) classic.