Suzanne Vega's best tunes are based on melodic patterns as circular as breathing, and her lyrical images also chase themselves round and round her cleverly sequenced debut album. The "Deep Freeze" summoned to ease a broken heart into numbness on the first cut, "Cracking," becomes in the following song a game of "Freeze Tag" played on another, younger, more carefree winter afternoon -- a freeze-dried memory that both consoles and mocks, like the poster smile of "Marlene on the Wall." Dietrich makes her first appearance in the child's-play context of "Freeze Tag" ("I will be Dietrich/and you can be Dean") but then becomes the sibylline muse for a romantically troubled older girl, a formidable model of female resistance to men's will that Vega's narrator tries and fails and tries again to emulate.
Another storybook model she clings to is the damsel-in-distress, and the "game of chivalry" first mentioned in "Freeze Tag" later turns into a whole suite of songs on that theme. "Some Journey," in which a contemporary urbanite who's probably seen The French Lieutenant's Woman too many times fantasizes a more capital-R romantic setting for meeting her lover than a New York sidewalk, sets up "The Queen and the Soldier," an untypically formal medieval-type ballad in which the title characters mask their amorous desires with elevated discourse on the morality of war and monarchical arrogance. "Knight Moves" looks at the same royal-romance situation from a different angle, but like "Some Journey" it can't hold out against mundane modern life. Her Majesty's self-indulgent reverie on romantic possibilities -- "Do you love any, do you love none/do you love twenty, can you love one/Do you love me?" (set to Vega's most courtly round) -- is shattered by the annoying reality of "the other woman" crying outside in the hallway.
Not since Joni Mitchell has a singer-songwriter held her emotional life up to such intense scrutiny as Suzanne Vega does, and her choice to work within a circumscribed set of images is a key to Vega's self-consciousness. Where Mitchell's classic mode has always been restlessness, moving from one man to another on an endless erotic pilgrimage toward self-knowledge, Vega stays put and lets her mind wander. Well, wander is not the right word -- she moves from one perspective to another with unerring precision, her observations meticulously ordered like the alternating pictures on a security guard's closed-circuit monitor, and just about that detached. "Small Blue Thing" is Vega's ultimate many-points-of-view song. "Today I am a small blue thing/Like a marble or an eye," she sings, describing herself further as "cool and smooth and curious" and "turning in your hand." And in the song's middle passage (set to ecstatic Steve Reichian percussion on the record), the lyric conjures Alice in Wonderland, Frank O'Hara, and a virtuosic tracking shot by
I am lost inside your pocket
I am lost against your fingers
I am falling down the stairs
I am skipping on the sidewalk
I am thrown against the sky
I am raining down in pieces
I am scattering like light...
While the images are vertiginously vivid, they float between literal and figurative meaning without ever quite landing, mostly because of that open-ended "you." The song could be a prayer, a confession of helplessness or an extremely poetic description of orgasm depending on whether it's addressed to a lover, to God, or to oneself -- and all three (and more) are possible. Unlike less skillful confessional songwriters, Vega looks at herself in many different ways and allows you to do the same. Whoever "you" are.
"Small Blue Thing" is the kind of gem that immediately makes people sit up and pay attention to a new songwriter, and it's gotten Suzanne Vegas plenty of notice very quickly. Too much hype is dangerous, though, for such a...well, not slim but let's say frail talent (remember Steve Forbert? Carolyne Mas?). I'm wild about "Small Blue Thing" -- some great jazz band should do a stretched-out 20-minute version -- but you could turn it into a joke by changing one word, "blue" to "brown."
The teenage drama of "Straight Lines" (should I cut my bangs or slit my wrists?) and Vega's ode to Vagina Dentata, "Undertow" ("I take you in, I don't
let go/And now I have you"), beg for mocking sing-alongs, just like early Joni and Neil Young ("I yam lone-lee but you can free me..."). And much as I love "Knight Moves" and "Marlene on the Wall," they do lean on a few mysterious locutions that could quickly label the singer Suzanne Vaguely.
That's why it was refreshing to see her a few weeks ago at the Speakeasy. Just days after the Sunday
Times review comparing her to 15 living legends came out, there was Vega playing to a half-empty club, wearing the same old East Village uniform (navy turtleneck,
black jeans). Her lack of performing expertise -- she looked at her fingers during chord changes and her featherweight voice ran out of breath on longer lines -- was rather endearing, especially given her lack of pretension; she admitted that she'd spent years listening to nothing but Leonard Cohen and mentioned that, next to Marlene on her wall, hangs a picture of Sting. Even (especially) in this plain setting, her best songs glistened like the pearls they are. She'll be playing with a band at the Bottom Line this weekend, and maybe it'll be great, but I have my doubts. She bombed last year opening for the McGarrigles at the Beacon, and rocking out has often been the downfall of folk revivalists (remember Steve Forbert? Carolyne Mas?). There's a satisfying connection between Vega's awkward, sullen waifishness in the face of would-be media stardom and the cold, unavoidable reality that short-circuits her romantic-fantasy ballads, and that connection works best in an intimate room and on her sparsely produced, mostly acoustic record. Maybe it's just that "small blue thing" is a more interesting image to embrace than "next big thing."
Village Voice, 1985