Chapter 1 - The Deep Freeze
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It is, at the risk of stretching a point too far, as if Vega's musical personae is split in two: a deliberate, austere style one hears on the surface of "Suzanne Vega" and later in "days of Open Hand," and a rhythmic, more soulful sensibility that did not fully break through until "99.9 F" and "Nine Objects of Desire." On "Suzanne Vega," on songs like "Cracking," these two styles came together in a unique way that prompted the kind of hyphenated descriptions used in Esquire Magazine's profile. It was not certain what Vega was, but it was clear that she was different.
Still, the subtle differences in her approach to certain songs over a 2 or 3-year period are instructive. For example, "Cracking," in one of the earliest recordings of the song, from The Coop Musical Magazine of February 1982 (SE101), has some ornamental flourishes in its acoustic guitar line that soften the song and places it slightly more in the mainstream of what one might expect of a "folk song."
Only 2 years later, in April 1984, Vega recorded a five-song demo tape that included a version of "Cracking." To listen to it is to hear the end product of Vega's relentless sanding and filing of the song. All superfluous flourishes and edges have been excised. The delivery is crisper. Her vocals are deeper in tone. Naturally, the improved sound quality and addition of bass, drums, and electric guitar add enormously to the polished finished product. But these alone cannot account for the transformation in the song. It has greater bite and sharpness to the drumming and guitar lines that hint at what she might have been trying to achieve in terms sound and production on her first album.
"Some Journey" also underwent a substantial evolution. Her performance of the song in Watertown in 1982 features none of the thrilling, driving guitar line, but is much more conventional in delivery, one might say almost passive. One hears this again on an early version recorded for the Coop Musical Magazine from June 1983. In both her voice, even after accounting for the poor sound quality of the source tapes, is lighter, thinner, and higher in pitch. On "Suzanne Vega" the song is more muscular in a way that even the addition of Mark Isham's synthesizers does not fully dilute.
This, in fact, may have been the source of some of Vega's dissatisfaction with the production of "Suzanne Vega:" "Some Journey," as she performs it today with just bassist Mike Visceglia accompanying her, takes on a vastly more powerful form than on the record, the full sound literally bursting out from the stage. It's a truly exciting moment in the show. Stripped of all adornment, the song is now in a form that comes close (in sound, not lyric) to the sort of soaring, anthemic rock song one would associate with U2 than Vega.
In a Rolling Stone review at the time, David Fricke was of the opinion that:
"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." 
It was probably the "new age"-like sound that Fricke identifies in several of the songs on "Suzanne Vega" that Vega herself identified as a weakness. Still, compared to other efforts, the album does not exhibit anything close to the painful, embarrassing earnestness of so many debut singer-songwriter recordings, much less those identified with the "new age" genre.
Later in his review, Fricke notes:
"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." 
Still, Fricke spoke, and still probably speaks for some, that Vega's music is too serious by half:
"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." 
Presciently, however, he also added:
"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." 
The nature of the "folk tradition" to which Fricke refers is entwined
with the popular perception of Vega's work. As much as any other writer, her
music both revitalized important aspects of the songwriting tradition, just
as it also helped to deal a mortal blow to sentimental ideas of folk music.
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