Filed under: album, review | Tags: close-up, love songs, matt barton, suzanne vega
Close-Up Vol 1, Love Songs •••½
For her first project after 2007’s critically lauded but commercially unsuccessful Beauty & Crime, Suzanne Vega revisits her back catalogue to give fresh spins on some classic material. The first in a planned four-part series of themed albums “to be released over the next two years”, Close-Up Vol 1, Love Songs does just what it says on the tin – offering up some of Vega’s finest “love” songs in a stripped-down style. Of course, some might argue that an acoustic rendering of Vega’s material, which so often was acoustic and stripped-down anyway, is redundant, but you can’t fault the sublime grace and quiet power of the writing. Fortunately, Vega does include some surprise song choices that are obviously more revelatory than those that stay closer to their studio originals. The subtitle Love Songs is not quite as simple as it may seem where Vega is concerned; a writer of literary sophistication, she is of the Leonard Cohen school of evocative imagery and poetic inventiveness. There is rarely a word out of place, and each song is delivered with a cool poise. Here, she explores, among other topics, erotic sensuality (‘Caramel’, ‘Stockings’), romantic anxiety and anguish (‘Song In Red & Gray’, ‘Bound’), and existential musings (‘Small Blue Thing’) with a keen eye for detail, and anyone who has followed her 25-year career will know that there has never been a dip in quality.
For this project, Vega cherry-picks some of the best-loved material from each of her albums bar 1990’s underrated Days Of Open Hand. The inclusions from 1985’s landmark debut Suzanne Vega are the least changed; ‘Small Blue Thing’ and ‘Some Journey’ are almost identical to their original counterparts, though most of the chilly ‘80s synths have been removed and Vega sings the evocative lyrics (“Today I am a small blue thing / like a marble, or an eye”) with newfound warmth. ‘Marlene On The Wall’, meanwhile, is slowed to a much more mid-tempo pace, allowing the listener to more clearly discern Vega’s wry, imaginative story about a picture of Marlene Dietrich who “records the rise and fall” of the narrator’s various conquests. Vega also gets her live concert delivery of the line “I tried so hard… to resist” down on record; here, the phrasing, lingering on the idea of the struggle, arguably carries more weight and is ultimately more effective. (The deluxe iTunes edition also includes faithful versions of two of the debut’s brightest jewels, ‘Freeze Tag’ and ‘Knight Moves’.)
The oldest song here is the elegant ‘Gypsy,’ always one of Vega’s most beautiful and warm ballads; originally written in 1978 and included on 1987’s Solitude Standing, here it attains a poignant wisdom from the 50-year-old Vega in contrast to the romantic 18-year-old who composed it following a summer romance. But it is the material gleaned from Vega’s two Mitchell Froom-helmed works, 1992’s 99.9ºF and 1996’s Nine Objects Of Desire, that is most ripe for discussion. Originally drenched in studio effects and exotic instrumentation, here these songs are stripped back to their core – and at that core, they are confirmed as some of Vega’s most interesting and off-kilter work. The quirky ‘(If You Were) In My Movie’, from the earlier record, is the most offbeat number here; there’s no denying that it misses some of the force of the studio original, but Vega’s spoken-word delivery of some of her most unusual lyrics is refreshing.
And from Nine Objects…, ‘Headshots’ is mostly unadorned, with some subtle vocal double-tracking on one line; the funky ‘Stockings’ makes use of handclaps and a supple bassline that mimics the Eastern-tinged strings of the studio arrangement. And then of course there is the slinky ‘Caramel’, which, with its feline, sexy vocal and finger-snapping, has an even jazzier tone than the sleek bossa nova of the original. Even in this acoustic setting, the song has an inherent languidness and a balmy sensuality fitting for a song conceived as an Astrud Gilberto tribute. This is one that sounds more like a demo recording; the horns are missed, but it’s a wonderful performance nonetheless.
A trio of songs from 2001’s “divorce album” (she split with producer-husband Mitchell Froom in the late 1990s) Songs In Red & Gray make the cut – a standard ‘(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May’, a sophisticated study of the attitudes of an ageing lover; the dark ‘Harbor Song’; and the melancholy, urgent ‘Song In Red & Gray,’ which now shines when stripped of Rupert Hine’s wishy-washy production. (The deluxe edition also adds ‘It Makes Me Wonder’, which, in acoustic form, loses some of the menace of the original.) From Beauty & Crime comes the intense ‘Bound’, an ode to Vega’s second husband, which here has a passion that arguably works better than its studio original, where the busy strings almost detract from the haunting quality of the melody. Vega’s higher vocals also have a strength and confidence here lacking from, for instance, ‘(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May’.
Close-Up Vol 1, Love Songs, then, shines the spotlight firmly on Vega’s lyrics and performances. It is more “stripped” than necessarily “acoustic”, for there are sporadic flourishes of electric guitar peppered throughout, but certainly it is a record without much studio embellishment. Vega’s work is mostly relatively low-key and acoustically-driven anyway, so some of the songs here – particularly the earlier material – don’t really add much to the originals save for a lower, warmer vocal delivery. Vega succeeds in creating an alternative “love songs” album; you won’t find any slushy reveries here; instead, expect elegance and intelligent songcraft. Even in the acoustic setting, her diverse style is palpable, and that is one of the prime reasons why this project comes off successfully. Certainly, an album of all-new material would have been most Vega fans’ first choice for a new record, but this is nevertheless a quietly intense, beautiful work that bodes well for the remainder of the series.
UK release date: TBC; www.myspace.com/suzannevega
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