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Music Review: Suzanne Vega – Beauty and Crime

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Suzanne Vega's seventh album Beauty and Crime develops the theme of New York life, and has its roots in her seminal debut album Tom's Diner. The ingenue of Tom's Diner has grown up and gained a whole lot of sophistication along the way. Vega has grown into a musical force who can easily hold her own amongst other contemporary artists such as Feist, Sujan Stevens and CocoRosie.

The album was recorded in new York and London, and the sessions produced by Jimmy Hogarth (Sia, Corinne Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall), and mixed by Tchad Blake. Also involved were orchestral arranger Will Malone (Dido, Seal, Corinne Bailey Rae); background vocalist and arranger KT Tunstall; guitarists Gerry Leonard (David Bowie) and Lee Ronaldo (Sonic Youth); bassist Tony Shanahan (Patti Smith); as well as members of Vega's impeccable touring band, bassist Mike Visceglia and drummer Doug Yowell.

The sound is unmistakably Vega; her clean, subtle voice is undiminished and as fresh as ever. Opening with the danceable "Zephyr and I", which recounts a conversation Vega had walking on West End Avenue with the seminal graffiti artist about their shared memories, with Johnny Marr-ish guitar riffs and sparkling tambourines, you could be forgiven for expecting nothing but happy optimism and an easy ride. Her lyrics have developed a contrapuntal irony and cynicism, however, which is at times heartbreaking in its realism. The track "As You Are Now", arguably the only sentimental track on the album, dedicated to the experience of mother-love, is haunting for what it doesn't say, but acknowledges – our children grow up, are not really ours, and suffering is a part of life we have to accept, even for our loved-ones: ("I will take up all your tears/ salty tissues through the years/ spread them in the sun to dry/ diamonds every time you cry.")

"Pornographer's Dream" (She's a pornographer's dream, he said:/ I knew what he meant/ but it made me imagine what kind of dream he would have") and "New York Woman" (Suburban boy out here for the first time/ from the twenty-seventh floor, above the mid-town roar/ You were startled by her beauty and her crime …. New York is a woman, she'll make you cry/ And to her you're just another guy… She's happy that you're here, but when you disappear/ She won't know that you've gone to say goodbye) see Marlene come down from the wall from where she used to watch and mock and confront male vanity and vulnerability directly in the lyrics and indirectly through the sly lounge-lizard lounge-lizard jazz of "Pornographer's Dream" and the contrapuntal upbeat acoustic guitar of "New York Woman".

A subtle off-beat snare pushes relentlessly through "Frank and Eva", itself a relentlessly dispassionate look at a pair of lovers ensnared by habit. ("She says its not enough to be in love… They broke up, they broke up/ they were so volatile and all the while life passed/ And it went fast/ And yet they never could forget the chemistry".)

Sit down and listen, with a strong coffee or a straight bourbon, to this tale of urban life, which speaks frankly, almost callously, of disappointment, cynicism, aging, loss and bitter-sweet love – but does it all so beautifully you hardly notice til it's too late. She captures the spirit of her age – in every sense. When I saw the album cover, I thought "Oh look, Suzanne Vega dressed up as a femme fatale". This album proves it's no costume. Beauty and Crime will seduce you, spit you out, and leave you asking for more.

Beauty and Crime is due for release by Blue Note on July 17th 2007. You can listen to the first single from the album, "Frank and Eva", on her website.

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About Elaine Borthwick

  • Just a quick nitpick: Tom’s Diner was not Suzanne Vega’s debut album. Rather it was a self titled album. Solitude Standing is the name of the album on which Tom’s Diner appears.

  • Ooops! Thanks for pointing out my mistake. I shouldn’t have relied on my failing memory! 🙂 HH