It’s easy to dismiss Suzanne Vega as a poor man’s Joni Mitchell, but songs such as Luka and Book Of Dreams (about the plight of amputees) proved that she was not only a highly literate songwriter but a storyteller who was brave enough to tackle the most awkward subjects.
In her unashamedly adult world, these taboo subjects merge with allegory and analogy – often in the same song – swirling melodies and weird rattling (Blood Makes Noise is positively Tom Waits-ish).
Born in Santa Monica, California but raised in New York as the oldest of four children, Vega started playing the guitar at the age of 11, began writing songs when she was 14 and first sang in public at 16. But when she entered the High School of the Performing Arts (before Fame fame) she intended to be a dancer. By the time she was 17, however, she decided her heart was with music.
She enrolled at Barnard College in New York, as a literature major.
Suzanne made a favourable impression with her sparsely-recorded, self-titled 1985 debut LP and its striking single Marlene On The Wall, but it was her sophomore album, Solitude Standing (1987), which gave Suzanne her most resounding success.
Like her debut, Solitude Standing was based around Vega’s intimate vocals, melodic flair and acoustic guitar playing but widened the stylistic net to incorporate greater sonic textures (including synths and electric guitars) and more muscular arrangements – with the obvious exception of the observational Tom’s Diner, which boasted a daring a capella treatment.
The likes of Night Vision (inspired by the French poet Paul Éluard’s Juan Gris) and the sensuous Calypso (a sea nymph in Greek mythology) revealed Vega’s literary pretensions and occasional lapses into self-conscious poetry, but the album’s centrepiece was the extraordinary Luka, whose infectious melody and vibrant folk/pop arrangement camouflaged a harrowing, but skillfully-constructed, lyric concerning an abused child.
Its subject matter made it an unlikely hit, but Luka climbed into the Top 3 in the US singles chart, with Solitude Standing consolidating that performance by reaching #11 in the US and #2 in the UK.
Tom’s Diner was also a minor hit in Britain but would achieve its maximum impact three years later when an enterprising dance remix by DNA reached the Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Days Of Open Hand (1990) and 99.9F° (1992) expanded on her songcraft, stirring in new textures and tactics while never straying far from her poetic stance.
By Nine Objects of Desire (1996), Vega was a wife (She married her producer Mitchell Froom) and a mother, and the album reflected her sense of change and adventure.