The Passionate Eye: Another Look at Suzanne Vega
In reviews of Suzanne Vega's last album, "Nine Objects
of Desire," it was
frequently stated that the album was her most "sensual" recording. Judging
by songs like "Caramel" or "Stockings," this certainly seemed the case. But
one of the less acknowledged aspects of Vega's work is the passion
underneath the skin of most songs from throughout her career, not just the
more recent ones.
Many songs -- "Freeze Tag," "Wooden Horse,"
"99.9," "In Liverpool," "50/50
Chance," "Woman on the Tier," "Institution Green," "Headshots," to name a
few -- fuse passion with control in both vocals and lyrics in a way that
Portishead's Beth Gibbons can only envy, a fusion of the rational and
irrational, clear-eyed consciousness and blurred hallucenation. Her album
"99.9" is a case in point. An album well ahead of its time, this 1992
recording foreshadows much of what is fashionable today. It blends elements
of the folk-influenced, acoustic-guitar tradition with the avant-garde, a
contrast at the heart of many of her best songs. The result is an ambiguity
in most every song, a tension between our expectations of "folk-inspired"
music and a sound that doesn't fit into any category of the Top 40. The
link between these two poles is her music's unadorned, austere quality.
It's a quality that puts her closer to Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, or
newer groups such as Portishead, than to traditional folk or rock. If
Vega's instrument of choice were keyboards or electronics, instead of the
acoustic guitar, our assessment of her work might radically change.
The ambiguity, simplicity, and latent passion of Vega's
enormous opportunities for reinterpretations. For most every one of her
songs there is a goldmine of material for other performers to explore (one
need only listen to the Lemonheads cover of "Luka" or DNA's sampling of
"Tom's Diner" or "Rusted Pipe" to get a tiny sense of the potential). Take
any number of Vega's songs at random -- "Left of Center," "Small Blue
Thing," "My Favorite Plum" -- and, with a small twist in delivery, anything
ranging from Pop love songs to studies in psychotic obsession could emerge.
Such wide potential in interpretations is possible only if the original
song, and its delivery, leaves much to the imagination, hints at the
psychology rather than spells everything out.
The 1995 tribute recording, "Tower of Song: The
Songs of Leonard Cohen"
(A&M 31454 0259 2) is an example. The 13 interpretations say as much about
the sensibilities of the artists as they do about Leonard Cohen's songs.
There is everything on this album ranging from the awful to the sublime.
Don Henley's take on "Everybody Knows" is overblown, the edge of Cohen's
lyrics lost amidst the bombast. So too is Elton John's cover of "I'm Your
Man," which comes across with all the subtlety of a new jingle for
Coca-Cola. Tori Amos, while acquiting herself well vocally, sends "Famous
Blue Raincoat's" lyric over the edge into melodrama. Peter Gabriel sets
himself a nearly impossible task--interpreting "Suzanne"--a song that is so
well-known and associated with the image of the sensitive troubadour-poet
that when singing it one is constantly on the knife-edge between beauty and
parody (he manages to avoid falling into parody, but the song also never
really takes off). Trisha Yearwood, Aaron Neville, Willie Nelson, and Jann
Arden's contributions are fine, as is Sting's version of "Sisters of
Mercy," which is lifted by The Chieftains' whimsical backing. But only two
artists try to go further, try to capture the mystery of Cohen's lyrics and
relish the cadence of his language: Bono's reading of "Hallelujah" and
Vega's "Story of Issac."
Vega's performance seems like it belongs to a different
album altogther. It
gets inside Cohen's words and elevates the entire album from the safe
predictability of Top 40. The choice of the song itself is revealing.
Cohen's lyric is drawn from the Book of Genesis, Chapter 22, and tells the
story of how God tested Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice his only
son, Issac. The chilling final verse of the song foreshadows the conflict
between Issac's sons, Jacob and Essau, in Genesis 27 (The Lord said to
Issac's wife, Rebecca: "Two nations are within you; You will give birth to
two rival peoples" Genesis 25:23).
It is by far the song on the album least known by the public--but it is the
song that stays with you longest after the record is finished. Backed by
Vega's spare, acoustic guitar and Ron Sexsmith's ghostly electric guitar,
the song captures Vega's gift for combining the traditional and the
progressive, passion with restraint. When she sings "when I lay upon the
mountain/and my father's hand was trembling/with the beauty of the word,"
the religious and mythic potential of Cohen's work is realized. The whole
effect--her voice and guitar, Jerry Marotta's percusion, and Sexsmith's
electric guitar--is a suspenseful, dramatic, and haunting, passion-play.
If "Nine Objects of Desire" did anything, it
merely made more visible and
accessible to a wider audience the passionate eye and voice of Suzanne
Vega. Meanwhile, a project we can only hope happens is a collection of
interpretations of Vega's songs by others.