Suzanne Vega: Suzanne Vega

MAY 1985 (27 YEARS AGO)
Suzanne Vega: Suzanne Vega is released.
# Allmusic 4/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
Suzanne Vega is the eponymous debut album by Suzanne Vega, released in May 1985. In 1989, Rolling Stone magazine listed Suzanne Vega at number 80 on its “100 Best Albums of the Eighties”. The album has sold close to two million worldwide.
Produced by Lenny Kaye and Steve Addabbo, the songs feature Vega’s acoustic guitar in straightforward arrangements.
Vega’s debut album marked a turning point, both for singer-songwriters and for female artists. Inspired more by the dark, poetic visions of Leonard Cohen than the hippie goddessisms of Joni Mitchell, she brought to the public an awareness that acoustic guitar-based music could be arch, urbane and artful. She also proved that, in an exceptionally male-dominated era, women didn’t have to be either wallflowers or sexpots to make their artistic statements.
Though she receives sympathetic backing from Jon Gordon, Michael Visceglia and others, Vega’s guitar and voice are at the heart of the arrangements. It’s that focus on the song that allows the stark, angular lyrics of “Small Blue Thing,” “Straight Lines” and “Undertow” to make their unpretentious poetry heard. And it’s Vega’s unique, vibrato-less delivery (a combo platter of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson) that gives perfect voice to these songs of urban rootlessness and spiritual ambiguity.
The current New York folk revival has a lot riding on this album – Suzanne Vega is the first major-label release from the new crop of Greenwich Village troubadours. But Vega – a young veteran of several Fast Folk songwriter anthology LPs – plays folk only in the largest sense of the word. Her lyric tradition barely goes as far back as the early Joni Mitchell’s tangled romances and dreamy fantasias. In the opening song, “Cracking,” she alternates vocally between a soft erotic plea and the impish bedtime-story tone of Laurie Anderson, daintily negotiating a Windham Hill-like arrangement of tiptoe guitars and raindrop keyboards. Vega ends the album with a wry slice of New York life à la Lou Reed, “Neighborhood Girls,” backing up the punky syncopation of her sprechstimme with the funk & roll kick of a Little Feat-style band.
She employs these musical devices with a shy discretion that is heightened by the cathedrallike ambiance of the production (former Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye coproduced). With words, however, she sometimes overplays her hand. Her epic intentions in “The Queen and the Soldier” are hampered by verbose medieval imagery and an obscured premise.
Vega is at her best when, as she sings in “Small Blue Thing,” she is “cool and smooth and curious.” “Undertow” benefits from its chilling simplicity: the light touch of strings and synth guitar are an effective contrast with her stark honesty (“I believe right now if I could/I would swallow you whole”). Stepping back in “Straight Lines” to observe a woman wrestling with her new liberation, Vega illustrates these schizophrenic throes with snappy ascending guitar chords, her voice in a bright, waifish cry, and then a melancholy descent into thoughtful harmonies and a cloudy gathering of guitars and synthesizers.
In spite of its occasional lyric riddles, Suzanne Vega is a remarkable album, because of the quiet power with which it expands the folk tradition. The hopes and prayers of the revivalists go with her, but Suzanne Vega is already leaving them far behind. (RS 451)
~ DAVID FRICKE (July 4, 1985)
All songs written by Suzanne Vega.
“Cracking” – 2:49
“Freeze Tag” – 2:36
“Marlene on the Wall” – 3:40
“Small Blue Thing” – 3:54
“Straight Lines” – 3:49
“Undertow” – 3:26
“Some Journey” – 3:38
“The Queen and the Soldier” – 4:48
“Knight Moves” – 3:36
“Neighborhood Girls” – 3:21

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