I remember the first time I ever heard Suzanne Vega: It was late in the Spring of 1985 and my childhood friend Emily would play Vega’s eponymous debut in her VW Beetle’s tape deck as we drove around the Salt Lake valley. I quickly became enamored with this album and especially Vega’s perceptive lyrics and her pretty, clear voice. At that time there was no one else quite like her. The well-deserved critical acclaim and the commercial reception of her second album, Solitude Standing (and its huge hit single Luka) proved Vega as a talent that was both groundbreaking (especially for other female singer/songwriters) and a longevity that remains unmatched. 25 years later, I still feel the same passion about her amazing music and career.
Suzanne Vega certainly is one our finest practicing lyricists (absolutely in the same league as Morrissey and Neil Tennant) as she writes with the heart of a true poet and is also an uncommonly fine songwriter. Seeing Vega live—which I’ve had the pleasure of many times—is always an amazing experience. Vega is a not only a great performer and guitarist but also a superb storyteller, who can convey through her music many emotions and levels. She is also fiercely funny, and though her subject matter can be quite serious and emotive at times, the stories behind the songs are sometimes laugh-out-loud hysterical.
Many songs from Vega’s debut album still hold an important place in her repertoire and seem just as vital as her hit singles. Many of her album tracks over the years boast the same importance. Having already released a best of compilation, 2003’s fine Retrospective, Vega recently said in a podcast she wasn’t interested in simply re-releasing her back catalogue but instead wanted to do something unique with these songs. Arranging them by theme, she has produced the first volume of her self-produced (and also self released on her own Amanuensis Productions label) four-disc planned Close Up series, entitled Love Songs.
Working with her longtime bassist, the incredible Mike Visceglia, and the very talented Gerry Leonard on electric guitar, Vega has re-recorded 16 songs from her rich catalogue ranging from her debut all the way to 2007’s criminally under-appreciated Beauty & Crime album. Some songs don’t at first seem to fit into the traditional love song genre the pop/rock world shoves down our throats, but upon hearing them, especially in this intimate, stripped back setting, their charm and importance for this theme becomes readily apparent. Credit must be given to Joe Blaney, who also mixed the album, for recording Vega’s lovely voice in such a unique way—sometimes overdubbed so she is harmonizing with herself, like on the album’s opener (and longtime favorite) Small Blue Thing. Vega’s vocals and acoustic guitar are, gloriously, at the forefront of the mix and this really brings the words and images they convey to life.
I was especially excited to see two of my all time favorites of hers, “(If You Were) In My Movie” and “Headshots,” included here. Obviously because of being re-recorded, but also because they are not traditional “love” songs, but rather are about fantasy and desire, and in the case of “Headshots” (The sign said “Headshots”/It’s all I see,/A boy becomes a picture/Of guilt and sympathy) of longing and reflection. The always gorgeous “Caramel,” “Gypsy” and “Marlene On The Wall” all seem like obvious choices of “love” songs, but I was surprised to learn in that same recent podcast that Vega initially threw the song in the trash because she thought no one would ever relate to it. Aren’t we all lucky then that her guitarist at the time convinced her otherwise and it became her first UK hit?! It would be hard to imagine her catalogue without it.
“(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May,” “Harbor Song” and “Song In Red And Gray” (all originally from 2001’s Rupert Hine produced gem Songs In Red And Gray) are particularly lovely on this collection. The haunting Bound (from the above mentioned masterpiece Beauty & Crime) closes the CD version’s 12 tracks, but the iTunes-only “deluxe edition” expands the theme with the cool “99.9 F∘” and “It Makes Me Wonder,” plus two more classics from her debut, “Freeze Tag” and “Knight Moves.” This version is highly recommended, but for collectors (like myself) I also recommend buying a limited version of the physical CD autographed by the woman herself simply for the uniqueness of it. Plus, it is always nice to own a Jeri Heiden/SMOG designed sleeve, which is a work of art itself. Here’s hoping the next volume, tentatively entitled People, Places and Things is right around the corner.
Suzanne Vega’s Close-Up Volume 1: Love Songs is available now exclusively on CD through Barnes & Noble and her website www.suzannevega.com/store and is also available digitally there, at Amazon and at iTunes, where a deluxe version is also offered.