For an artist who emerged during the folk revival of the mid-80’s, Suzanne Vega has done incredibly well. A Grammy nominated, multi-million selling singer-songwriter of renown and respect is not something to be sneered at. Though it’s only partially correct to ascribe Vega the ’folkie’ tag for someone who’s not quite pop, not really country, not wholly acoustic and not really rock (but can). In Vega’s repertoire is a semblance of all these things, but for someone who’s tried their hand at nearly everything in their 25 year career a little diversion from the main path is only expected.
Growing up as a pop kid in the 80’s, Vega could be seen on regular rotation for the MTV generation by way of “Left of Centre” from the 1986 Pretty In Pink soundtrack or the pop-light but content-heavy “Luka” which dealt with child abuse. By the early 90’s there was the worldwide smash-hit via the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner” and her little foray into electronic music with “Blood Makes Noise” from 1992’s 99.9 F°. “Tom’s Diner“ is the track that made Vega a household name. A song that even today has become like an unwelcome guest at a party. Once let in, impossible to get rid of.
The acoustic album is a popular format for the artist who’s gone to the far corner of the career and come back round again, faced with a substantial life’s worth of music that bares reinvestigating. Dividing her songbook into thematic groups, Vega has chosen the most obvious theme, “Love”, for the first of four releases in this series. With most tracks reduced to a simple vocal and acoustic accompaniment, Vega clearly holds the advantage, with her voice easily one of the most soothing and resonating in contemporary music. You’re unlikely to gain any new insight into Vega as an artist, but you may hear her songs in the way they were perhaps first conceived.
It’s not surprising that many of Vega’s adored songs are love songs, now outed as such, you listen closer for clues. Comparing herself to a marble in a man’s hand, as on the delicate reading of “Small Blue Thing”, or the open defiance of “Even if I’m in love with you/all of this, what‘s it to you?”, from her 1985 debut single, “Marlene On The Wall”. These aren’t your standard love songs per se. Some take a look through the other end of the telescope (“Caramel” and “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May”), while others lay Vega’s heart quite clearly on her sleeve, as with the youthful infatuation of “Gypsy” (“hold me like a baby/who won’t fall asleep“).
The most telling song in her selection is wisely saved for last. Were it thrown somewhere in the middle, the bleak, pleading tone of “Bound” may have ruined the almost playful cross-section of tracks taken from every stop in her back catalogue. “Bound” is the end of the line, the end of the love song — “The way of the world has taken its toll/ravaged my body and bitten my soul”. It smacks of darkness and desperation and it’s a side of love you really don’t want to hear about, let alone experience. You don’t choose those moments, and I’m sure when it came to assembling this collection, these career-defining moments chose her.