Beauty & Crime
t’s hard to imagine people getting really excited about a new Suzanne Vega album, even though it’s been six years since the modest, expert Songs in Red and Gray. Vega is unlikely to pull Norah Jones’ hair, nor throw up on Amy Winehouse’s shoes—worse luck. But at least one can expect some number of fans, perhaps no more than a handful these days, to pore over her new songs looking for the ancient sagas hewn into their smooth sides, all the while turning over and pocketing the impertinent bells and whistles of a restless composer beholden to no one but her quiet muse.
Will the obsessive attention pay off? Weeeelll, no. And then again, yes. Suzanne Vega albums, no longer pinned to the sky by sharp, perfectly formed folk ballads like “The Queen and the Soldier” or “Luka,” are tricky beasts, hoarding their secrets and seduction like an aging courtesan.
The press blurb warns of the addition of “cutting edge” beats—read overstuffed—but mercifully nothing too dire mars Vega’s compositions, which remain as condensed and detailed as Victorian miniatures. In their nods to a hazy idea of “contemporary” sound, many of the arrangements sound like innocuous camouflage for Vega’s mordant observations, swathing adult material in the guise of juvenile pop. Vega has always been a songwriter more than a singer, which perhaps is why so many of the songs seem oddly pitched for her voice, requiring repeated leaps into a pale, effete head voice.
Thus: at fourth listen, “Zephyr & Me” turns chrysalis, incubating the unexpected revelation that the simple, almost trite song is really about the little tricks and names we call memory, the detailed tics and spasms that make a place yours and no longer yours. “Frank and Ava,” the putative single, proves to be quite catchy even if Vega’s voice remains resolutely unassuming (she recruits KT Tunstall to give a ghost of punch to the chorus). But much better than the song’s hook is Vega’s casual frankness, rearranging an apocryphal Ava Gardner reference to Frank Sinatra: “On the way to the bidet / Is when the trouble used to start.” And thence to the breezy, Tunstall-enhanced chorus, wherein Vega sings “It’s not enough to be in love” with all the breeziness of a bit of fluff by Hilary Duff. It is deceptive, mystifying—is Vega playing at teen queen, or playing with teen queens?
“Edith Wharton’s Figurines,” like much of the album, emerges in carefully turned and balanced sentences, a strange sensation for those of us raised on the mock-pithy fragments of Bono-isms or Interpol. The lyrics immediately sound sententious or worse, particularly when you realize it’s dedicated to Olivia Goldsmith, author of The First Wives Club, and about her death from a plastic surgery procedure: “Her own beauty not enough.” But as with everything else on Beauty & Crime, the first reading shortshrifts the song, with its measured verses, in which Vega draws parallels with Wharton’s characters and remarks, thoughtfully but not angrily, “’Cause in the struggle for survival / Love is never blind.” Vega never repeats verses idly; the final verse substitutes the first person plural for Goldsmith.
One can read the album as an account of Vega’s six-year absence from recording: there are sweetly observed tributes to both her husband and young daughter. But Vega’s last album came out just after September 11th 2001; a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, she has taken her time assessing the changed landscape, psychic and tangible, of her hometown. Yet what is most striking about “Angel’s Doorway,” which will become known as her 9/11 song, is its adamant optimism, even while chronicling the psychic price paid by a policeman—a relative of Vega’s—working at the site of the bombing, who must divide his life between what he sees in the day and his home. As always, Vega’s interest is relationships and the human frailty that makes them: “She knows the smell / Of that life he can’t tell / Of the fires and the flesh and confusion.”