Suzanne Vega achieves an admirable balance of strengths on this new studio album, her first in way too long (seven years). Lyrically and vocally, she is succinct and clear in meaning while still being poetic rather than prosaic. Yet the songs themselves – in their sly melodic twists, instrumental coloration and production (by Gerry Leonard) – are marvels of artful construction.
This is an odd thing to say about an album whose ten compositions all are under five minutes (six are under four), but at times the imaginative arrangements provide symphonic breadth and complexity. Take, as an example, the deeply compelling “Song Of the Stoic,” about a mysterious loner harmed in childhood and now guarded. (A “Luka” update?)
It starts with high-powered electric-guitar chords (Leonard) dueling with a banjo (Larry Campbell) before Vega’s voice, nonchalantly soft but every word registering, sings the ominous narrative to a minor-key melody. But at the verse’s conclusion, Catherine Russell’s wordless backing vocals come in to soothe and comfort. There is then a solemnly expansive passage provided by the Smichov Chamber Orchestra Prague, and afterward the song resumes Vega’s character’s story.
The sonic territory covered and the complex emotions conveyed are impressive considering “Song of the Stoic” is just a shade over four minutes. And yet Vega achieves this again and again on the album. The overall effect is novelistic – verses, choruses, bridges unfold like satisfyingly detailed chapters.
Another successful example is “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” whose very title conjures memories of blues-truism songs like Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover.” It has a Middle Eastern musical motif – interpolated from 50 Cents’ “Candy Shop” and played by the Prague chamber orchestra – that provides flourish and contrast for a vivid, wise tale about using writing as an outlet for “that tiger rage that you can’t contain for real.”
But when she wants some New York rock grit (she was raised there, after all), she can come up with a hypnotically repetitive riff to rival Lou Reed. The premier example here is “I Never Wear White,” which at its halfway point (and again toward the end) breaks into a buzzy electric-guitar solo by Leonard. Vega’s voice has an extra depth on this song, heightening its declarative nature. And the lyrics amount to a credo – a strong, independent urban woman’s show of solidarity with Johnny Cash:
“I never wear white
White is for virgins
Children in summer
Brides in the park”
In some of these selections, especially the Alice in Wonderland-like “Crack in the Wall,” she seems to be simultaneously exploring the real world and some place unseen, unknown and ephemeral. She also gets inspiration from knowledge of magic, but she’s sly (and entertaining) about it. The album’s title, a reference to Tarot cards, comes from “Fool’s Complaint.” But in it, Vega doesn’t see herself as the Queen – “How I hate the Queen of Pentacles!” she sings in the opening line – but rather:
“My card’s the fool, the fool, the fool
That merry rootless man,
With air beneath my footstep
And providence is my plan.”
The way she gently, reassuringly positions herself as an outsider is a touching strength, recalling another fine New York songwriter – Janis Ian – in worldview if not in her sound.
Vega can be plainspoken about her optimism and hopefulness, even while expressing herself poetically. The gorgeous closing tune “Horizon (There Is a Road)” tells us that “love moves us on to that distant horizon…so true,” while the light folk-rock arrangement parts for a stately trumpet passage from Alison Balsom. At the end, Vega briefly takes her voice up to a higher octave, emphasizing the sincerity of her words.
The effect is inspirational. But then so is the whole album. It shows that a talented, visionary singer-songwriter can comfortably do what she does so well, yet not be trapped by conventionality.