Friday, 11 June 2010

Suzanne Vega - Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs Album review (2010)

A review for In One Ear.

Here’s an idea. You’re a brilliant and well respected New York folk poet with seven superb albums and countless great songs, spanning twenty five years in the industry. What is your next move? The inevitable swathe of greatest hits? The live compilations? A Motown covers album in which you declare that you‘ve always loved the music and it was a massive inspiration even though you‘ve never mentioned it before? No, what you do is make four new albums of your own previously recorded songs. Precise, clean, honest, beguiling and fantastic in equal measure, Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs is a new take on old material spanning Vega’s entire back catalogue.

As a collection of ‘love songs’, there are some less than obvious, and some very obvious, choices. A trio of albums boast nine of the twelve songs with no place for anything from the wonderful Days of Open Hand. You can argue that Book of Dreams is a perfect love song, as is Men in a War and we can only hope that they are both featured on another of these new quartet of records. Likewise you could pick most of the songs from Nine Objects of Desire and omit Headshots (which is featured) and include much of Beauty & Crime. But compilations are always subjective beasts and the listeners interpretation of what is a love song is not always aligned with the artist’s. This explains the material reworked from Songs In Red and Gray, written in the wake of Vega’s marriage break-up and now given a fresh retrospective, and more measured, take.

The trio of songs taken from Vega’s eponymous debut are amongst the best. Small Blue Thing is stripped of the sharpness and the distant vocal production, pushing Vega’s distinctive voice right into the foreground. The cluttered chorus is replaced by something much more ethereal. But the real surprise is the new version of the superb pop masterpiece Marlene On The Wall, slowed to a more sedate pace and simplified. The wonderful guitar work is still present but, like the vocal, pushed to the fore. The snide nasal bitterness in Vega’s voice is removed as is the percussion. Some Journey, a little known album track, is a brave choice given a new chance to shine. Not one of Vega’s best but it floats and drifts mysteriously at the end of Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs unfolding as Vega muses on the possible roles in a relationship - a theme explored many times throughout her music.

Gypsy, the only song from Solitude Standing is treated exactly the same: the essence of the song is preserved within a new production and much cleaner sound with simple guitar and Vega’s exquisite matter-of-fact delivery creating the second instrument. In contrast (If You Were) In My Movie is rerecorded in very odd way, somewhere between the intimately acoustic and trying to get close to the original. If there was an obvious low point of the album it is this misjudgement.

Nine Objects of Desire is the source of the next three songs and more odd choices. Headshots, as mentioned, doesn’t strike as an immediate song of love, lust or even infatuation until the song steers that way into the last minute. And the slower delivery is very laboured. Caramel, which questionably features on Tried and True (1998s best of compilation) is actually a better version mainly due to Vega’s updated vocals and a very crisp acoustic guitar melody. And the overtly sensual Stockings is even more sultry, enhanced by a much clearer vocal, as if Vega is whispering a forbidden encounter to a lover rather than retelling a sordid tale to an much wider audience.

From the later work, there is more correlation with the vocal arrangements on the songs. This doesn’t stop Vega conjuring up a few diversions. From Songs in Red and Gray, (I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May is given the bare bones treatment (gone is the harpsichord and percussion and in comes acoustic guitar), making the music and words stand out. In an album that deals with the before and after of divorce, the title track has little of the understated drama of the original but all of the pain. If anything the lack of huge musical movement and no production on the wordless chorus adds to the stark empty feeling. Harbor Song is equally stripped, most notably the bass and drums.

Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs closes with Bound from Vega’s most recent album Beauty & Crime. The original is a superb piece of dramatic theatre with breathless angelic vocals, big drums, a guitar driven interlude, before a string laden build up to a magnificent soaring finale. How Vega reworks this in a new way is to go straight to the other extreme. And it works beautifully. No bass. No strings. No drums. Just a guitar and a voice.

Suzanne Vega is a legend to some and, in spite of diminishing commercial success in the last decade and the fact that it took a remix by DNA to make Tom’s Diner her biggest hit in 1990, she has continued to make music unlike anyone else. The quality of the song writing, the musicianship and performance on Close-Up Volume 1, Love Songs is not in question here but you have to ask yourself: what is the point of this endeavour? This feels as much a cathartic experience for Vega as it is a musical gift for the listener. She is not only trying to remind us of how great her songs are; she is trying to remind herself. But a huge part of music is time and place, a moment captured with all its purpose, perfections and faults, never to be redone. So the skill is to retain and enhance, respect and add new relevance. Suzanne Vega has found a unique way of revisiting her own brilliant music.
-- CS (for In One Ear)

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