Suzanne Vega concludes her series of albums reexamining her songbook with Close-Up, Vol. 4: Songs of Family, and given the album's themes, it's appropriate that this is the most spare and intimate installment in this mostly acoustic series. These 14 songs all deal with familial relationships, albeit in many different ways, from a sly contemplation of her marriage ("Honeymoon Suite") to studying the emotional fallout of her divorce ("Soap and Water"), from meeting her biological father for the first time ("Pilgrimage") to revisiting the neighborhood where she grew up ("Ludlow Street"), while also finding room to celebrate her love for her daughter ("World Before Columbus") and the grim tale of another child whose relationship with her folks is not as rosy ("Bad Wisdom").
In 1985, singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega released her stunning self-titled debut album. 25 years and 7 million albums sold later, Suzanne is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant songwriters of her generation. Now Suzanne is reinterpreting a majority of her catalog in a close and personal manner, creating 4 new thematic albums that will be released over 2010-2011. States of Being has Suzanne revisiting her most haunting songs. Suzanne used to call these the "Mental Health" songs. They express a state of mind, but also more than that; Suzanne says, "they are descriptions of a place deep inside. Anyone can feel like the narrator in Penitent, or Cracking, depending on your mood". Vol. 3 also includes a brand new song, a collaboration with Duncan Sheik from Suzanne's upcoming play, "Carson McCullers Talks About Love".
Back in the mid-80s, when folk music was in the doldrums, a New York-based acoustic guitarist and singer-songwriter was hailed as the scene's new saviour, thanks to her cool, classy songs and often highly personal lyrics. Whether "folk" was the right description for Suzanne Vega is of course debatable, for there were few traditional influences in much of her work, but she deservedly sold millions of albums and notched up hits with Luka and Tom's Diner..
In musical terms, it is less significant that Mitchell Froom is no longer Suzanne Vega's husband than it is that he is no longer her producer. Although Froom's experimental style helped the singer/songwriter fulfill her desire to expand beyond her folk-pop roots on her fourth and fifth albums, 99 F° and Nine Objects of Desire, his approach actually worked against the material, cluttering her intimate, direct songs with inappropriate percussion tracks and various kinds of sound processing. So, listeners who responded strongly to her first three albums but found the Froom discs off-putting (and there were plenty of them) should be alerted that, sonically, Songs in Red and Gray is ready to welcome back old fans. Produced by Rupert Hine, it has the kind of carefully played acoustic guitar work and close-up vocal miking that characterized Suzanne Vega and Solitude Standing. That makes it easier to appreciate Froom's departure from Vega's personal life as well as her professional one, however.
Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega is essentially A&M's updated version of their 1999 issue, The Best of Suzanne Vega: Tried and True, adding "Tired of Sleeping" from Vega's Days of Open Hand, "Calypso" and "Solitude Standing" from Solitude Standing, "(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May" and "Penitent" from the 2001 recording Songs in Red and Gray, and "Woman on the Tier (I'll See You Through)" from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack.
I confidently recommend this DVD with 15 videos featuring Suzanne Vega to any of her many fans. It includes most of her very best known songs, with 'Marlene on the wall' being the striking exception…