Chapter 1 - The Deep Freeze
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"The Queen and the Soldier"
The theme of spiritual immobility, the emotional "deep freeze", is perhaps most powerfully addressed in "The Queen and the Soldier," a haunting allegory that remains one of the best songs Vega has written, a song that even Vega seems hard-pressed to "explain." In it, the Queen struggles with enormous conflicts between arrogant pride and shame (she is "ashamed" and her head is "bowed down"), and between reaching out and "the solitude she preferred."
Throughout the song there are secrets and screens. The Queen wants "more than she ever could say" but turns away from it, denies it, chooses instead to remain ensconced in her "palace up here on the hill." Feelings are not understood ("your ways are very strange" and "you won't understand, and you may as well not try") and there is a "deep freeze" in the ability to articulate things as the Queen goes on "strangling."
Years later, the ghost of the Queen will inhabit the song "Penitant," wherein the narrator struggles with a stubborn, angry pride:
forgive me all my blindnesses
weakness and unkindnesses
as yet unbending still.
struggling so hard to see
my fist against eternity
will you break my will?
One hears this same hubris in the Queen, who is torn between guilt (she cannot look at the consequences of her order) and ruthlessness (she does kill the soldier), between penitence and pride.
Out in the distance her order was heard
And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word
And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
The battle continued on.
In these songs the narrator is raised up high and brought down low. In "Penitent" we hear:
Once I stood alone so proud
held myself above the crowd
now i am low on the ground.
Then in "The Queen and the Soldier:"
The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye
She said, "You won't understand, and you may as well not try"
But her face was a child's, and he thought she would cry
But she closed herself up like a fan.
There is pride and power in how the Queen closes herself up like a fan, a pride
not to reveal herself, her weakness, and power that comes from keeping an inscrutable
face -- keeping things within. Guilt and pride, sin and redemption, these are
themes that seem to circle each other in these songs, neither side winning,
neither able to fully extinguish the other, and so each song ends on an ambiguous
note with the "battle continuing on" and in
"Penitant" with this question:
to see your sign
Secrets and screens; fantasy and escape. The inscrutable Queen, closed up like a fan, is also resurrected years later in "(I'll Never Be Your) Maggie May:"
I'd rather hide myself away
be like those ladies in Japan
rather paint myself a face
conjure up some grace
or be the eyes behind a fan.
"Cracking" and "The Queen and the Soldier" form a remarkable duo, and in some ways forms the foundation for Vega's musical reputation. While both share superficial similarities - both are accompanied by acoustic guitar, both share aspects of the folk/storytelling tradition - they represent entirely different, entirely new musical species altogether. "Cracking," in its minimalist structure, its subordination of beat over melody (even down to the monotone vocal), and its stark imagery, is a song quite unlike anything ever written or recorded before. "The Queen and the Soldier," whilst taking on the form and manner of the classic, pastoral folk ballad, is steeped in metaphors that are charged with psycho-erotic power. In short, with a handful of songs Vega elevated by a considerable degree the songwriting playing field. Though others would earnestly try to mimic this combination of classicism and modernity, few would match Vega and often fell prey to pretentiousness.
In a manner that is almost cinematic in quality, Vega's words and guitar convey motion through the album. The thrilling opening bars of "Some Journey," with its hypnotic, ringing acoustic guitar line is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of this effect. We are propelled head-long into the story with a sense of train-like inevitability. This mind's-eye motion is also felt as we traverse the corridors and hallways of the Queen's castle, working our way into the heart of her solitary maze in ways that seem to mimic the fluid movements of a cinematographer's Steadi-cam.
The motion, though, is more important than just a by-product of the music. It is integral to Vega's manner of art for it is motion - along with smell and sound - that so often characterizes our most vivid dreams. Throughout her music we see examples of striking combination of metaphors and visuals. It is central to the song "Cracking," for example, that we are presented with a richly detailed, highly "realistic" musical soundscape and that we walk with the narrator through this setting in such a way that the illusion of motion strongly imprints the song in our minds, just as we often recall an event from our lives by remembering where and how we walked a certain path and route. This technique can be heard and felt in songs as diverse as "Rosemary," "Headshots," and "Men Will Be Men."
"Part of it was pure escapist fantasy as far as I was concerned because I had grown up in New York--in the streets. I had never taken a train, I had never been outside of the city except once. We went on a trip to California when I was 11 on a Greyhound bus. That took 4 days. I was amazed. I had never seen Ohio. I had never seen little white houses and picket fences and all that stuff in New York. As far as I was concerned that was as much of a fairy tale as "Raggedy Ann and Andy" was. I thought it was going to be like New York City from one end of the country to the other. So these songs about the trains and traveling. It was also about a longing for freedom. These songs were all about freedom. About hopping on a train with your guitar and going on the road and being free." 
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