Beauty & Crime
Suzanne Vega’s first studio album in six years is a little jewel of a recording; 11 compact tracks of closely observed stories of her native New York City, backed by deceptively driving percussion and lush orchestrations.
While she’s often pigeonholed as a folk singer, the image of a woman alone with a guitar belies the depth and richness of the songs that soar with backing vocals, winds and strings. But the main instrument here is Miss Vega’s ability to pace a story in song and a gentle whisper of a voice that delivers lyrics of devastating beauty and power.
In a little over two-and-a-half minutes, she unpacks a tale of the breakdown of the marriage of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner in a song appropriately titled, “Frank & Ava.” She sets the scene of a marriage coming apart with the line, “He’s so true. She is too. She says, ‘I love you, Frank,’ and then they drank all night.” The song hinges on a chorus sung by Scottish songwriter KT Tunstall, “It’s not enough to be in love” — a line that finds echoes in the breakdown of Miss Vega’s own marriage to producer Mitchell Froom.
There is much that’s autobiographical here. The opening track, “Zephyr & I,” recounts a 2002 conversation between Miss Vega and an artist friend. The feel of the song is romantic and wistful, but also speaks obliquely about New York and New Yorkers healing from the trauma of the September 11 attacks. Simple references to a “Fireman’s Monument,” and how “river rain will clean the stain and wash away, wash away downstream,” convey powerfully the process of embracing a wounded, diminished city.
The wreckage of the Twin Towers takes center stage on “New York is a Woman.” Miss Vega locates the city’s immutable power and majesty in the lyric: “Look down and see her ruined places/ Smoke and ash still rising to the sky/She’s happy that you’re here, but when you disappear/She won’t know that you’re gone to say goodbye.”
A lifelong New Yorker, Miss Vega had the unusual misfortune of releasing her previous studio album, “Songs in Red and Gray,” in the days just after the attacks. Though the album marked a return to top form for the singer-songwriter, it went largely ignored.
Twenty years have passed since her single “Luka” charted in the United States and the United Kingdom. The story, ostensibly about child abuse, really spoke more to apartment living in New York and the anonymity and loneliness that can abide even in the closest quarters.
In “Beauty & Crime,” she limns the joys and sorrows of a city shown not flinching from its changes, but finding peace in the knowledge that at its core it is the same place. If nothing else, it will get people wondering how Miss Vega stacks up in the pantheon of songwriters (Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen) who’ve made New York their subject.
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