The engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg thought he had succeeded in compressing audio into a new digital format when he heard Suzanne Vega’s a cappella song “Tom’s Diner” on the radio, and he decided to see how it would translate into this new matrix. Ultimately he realised he had more refining to do in order for this new algorithm to capture and do justice to this simple single voice. Cue some thinking and tinkering music, and…(Click, click, buzz, beep, blip…ksshhhh)…hey presto, the MP3 was born.
She may seem a strange choice for that historic musical litmus test, because she will probably be remembered more for her lyrics; an artist who wrote poetic modern folk songs of urban experience (a Janis Ian for the 80s and 90s). But this overlooks the musicality of her songs. Her vocal melodies stand out like nursery rhymes floating over splintered instrumentation. Even on her first self-titled album she was augmenting acoustic guitar parts with slithers of electric guitar and bass and synths, as she fleshed out a range of oblique tunes; setting the frailty of our inner world against the toughness of concrete, iron and love. She had a hit with “Marlene on the Wall”, but it was songs like “Cracking”, “Freeze Tag”, “Small Blue Thing” and “The Queen and the Soldier” that Vega fans pored over and absorbed deeper. I know I did. It was 1992, I was 18, and I was primed for a Suzanne Vega phase; that age of seminal brain explosion, where ideas mould identity and notebooks are filled with bad verse. I had cassettes of that first alb and this, her second. There were days when I thought (if I was forced to choose) I liked her first alb the best. Then the next day I liked Solitude Standing better. (I admit it’s one of those questions rendered meaningless outside the realms of geeky fandom. All her records are worth many listens.)
Anyway. She released 99.9F° in 1992, and I caught her at the Sydney State Theatre that year, and it helped cement her in my mind as a significant artist, one I would return to over the years when I need a dose of, um…something. You see, as notable as her words are, there is much more to her music than ‘poetic lyrics’. There is a vibe. There is a distinct atmosphere. Her voice is remarkably even and controlled, maintaining a poker face while it says things that you sometimes suspect are highly personal. (Get a load of her recent Up Close series, where she revisits her songs some 20-odd years later. Her voice has not aged a bit!) Other times her voice seems to detach completely, becoming the voice inside your head, whispering lines and making connections like half-remembered dreams. (Is that a real memory or imagination? Did the past really happen? What did she just say? You can play it back, but it may simply elude you again.)
It was a coin toss, but the reason I picked this album is because as I get older I find I connect more to the slightly pared down lines and the longer atmospheric spaces in the songs. There is a soft abstraction that I like. I actually don’t want to know what her songs are about. I don’t want to dissect them. I don’t want to shine torches into the shadow. I’m happy to remain passive, to wander these streets alone, with no guide, to feel the full effect. Because, make no mistake, if you let it, her music can get in your blood. She’s the kind of artist I imagine who has some pretty devoted (read: borderline obsessive) fans who debate the definitions and decipher her imagery ’til dawn. And good on ‘em, but it’s not for me. These days I tend to leave her on in the background, like ambient music, and fill the room with that aromatic Vega vapour and just breathe it.
Anyway. If you have this album, you already understand what I’m saying. If you don’t have this album, you’ll encounter the hits “Tom’s Diner” and “Luka”, and they’re great songs, but I’ve been known to start it at track 3, “Ironbound/ Fancy Poultry”, which is my personal favourite. And from here on out you can sink into the blurry abyss that is Solitude Standing…it’s deep and dark and cold, but it’s also oddly cozy and comforting and familiar and soothing and nostalgic. She can plant false memories and ruefully pin down real ones. To be honest I don’t revisit her albums all that much, (maybe a few times a year I go through a week of intensely playing her stuff) but that’s only because I find her music so potent and effective (plus I’ve put a lot of miles between myself and 1992, which is a time her music can’t help but conjure, for me). She’s a songsmith of razor precision. (Again, witnessing her on the recent Up Close series revisiting old songs, you realise that most sound pretty much the same, not only because her voice hasn’t changed, but because they were so tightly constructed and perfectly cut like diamonds, that there is really no other way to reinterpret those songs. How else to do you sing the melody of “Tom’s Diner”? There is no other way.)
It’s hard to do her justice with a few hundred words. But I think another thousand would just dig me a deeper hole. Listening to this album again as I write, I realise I could’ve saved myself some time and let her write this piece herself (her insight and concision would’ve been useful) by quoting her song “Language”: ‘If language were liquid/ It would be rushing in/ Instead here we are/ In a silence more eloquent/ Than any word could ever be/ These words are too solid/ They don’t move fast enough/ To catch the blur in the brain/ That flies by and is gone…’. Pretty good, hey? I should just give up. She nails me even further in the last verse: ‘I won’t use words again/ They don’t mean what I meant/ They don’t say what I said/ They’re just the crust of the meaning/ With realms underneath/ Never touched/ Never stirred/ Never even moved through…’
I’ll stop now.
~ DECOY SPOON
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