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I've been a fan of Suzanne Vega since I first heard her haunting voice on the radio in the late 1980s. I didn't know who she was and asked around to find out what the song I had heard was called and who the singer was. I discovered the song was called Luka and the artist was Suzanne Vega. A quick trip to Hudsons later and I was the proud owner of a cassette album (remember those?) called Solitude Standing. Time travel forwards from 1987 to 2005 and you see me with several Suzanne Vega albums (now on CD) and I'm still listening to Solitude Standing even now ~ a true test of music standing the test of time!
For those who don't know, Suzanne Nadine Vega was born in Santa Monica, California back in July 1959. Her family moved to Spanish Harlem in New York in 1961 (when her mother married Ed Vega). Suzanne grew up here and speaks both English and Spanish.
At just over two minutes this is a pretty short acapella track. You may remember it more from the later version released by DNA which did have music. This is a well sung piece but is a little slow and perhaps not the most dynamic track to start an album with. I also think the song is a bit disjointed in places and quite difficult to listen to.
"Oh, this rain
It will continue
Through the morning
As I'm listening"
This is the song that really got my attention and interest in the first place and would have been much better placed as the first song on Solitude Standing. The song is actually quite upbeat and has lots of energy. It is surprisingly bright and cheerful given that the subject matter is the physical abuse of a small child. This is an excellent song and really gives the suggestion that such awful things can happen anywhere ~ especially where you wouldn't expect!
"I guess I'd like to be alone
With nothing broken, nothing thrown"
This is another typical Vega track ~ her distinctive voice is powerful and paints a picture of markets and poultry sellers. Not my favourite track on the CD, but it does show case Vega's voice well and brings out the slightly "folky" side of her repertoire. The market mentioned in the song seems to paint a picture of the Spanish quarter where she grew up and shows quite a bleak environment, despite the melodic words and music.
"Fancy poultry parts sold here.
Breasts and thighs and hearts.
Backs are cheap and wings are nearly free.
***In the Eye***
This is another rather odd take on life from Vega. The song seems to be about someone who is about to be killed and is unafraid. The words are quite stark and short and the song is a little abrupt and simple in structure. I think this is one of those songs that is better to listen to than to analyze! I find the music in this one a little more jarring than in many of Vega's other tracks.
"If you were to kill me now right here
I would still look you in the eye"
Night Vision is another example of Vega's writing talent. The words flow rhythmically and are quite beautiful and poetic. This is a song that can be enjoyed on different levels. It is lovely to listen too but, as with many of the songs on this album, slightly disturbing and the meaning is unsure.
"Now I watch you falling into sleep
Watch your fist curl against the sheet
Watch your lips fall open and your eyes dim"
The title track of the album is one of my favourite Suzanne Vega songs ever. I think it is actually better than the more well known songs like Luka and Tom's Diner. I think the arrangement of the song is great, there is an energy that isn't present in some of the songs and there is a more of a feel good factor too. The sentiment of Solitude Standing is dark though and is, I think, about isolation and loneliness. A top class tune that gets inside my head every time I hear it. It is also a good song to place half way through the album. The energy keeps the attention of the listener well and keeps that interest going enough to want to continue listening.
"Solitude stands in the doorway
And I'm struck once again by her black silhouette
By her long cool stare and her silence
I suddenly remember each time we've met"
The album continues in fine style with the lovely Calypso, the well crafted tale of love and loss on an island (I picture it as a sunny Caribbean island). It flows beautifully and is a very relaxing song to listen to. I also see a darker side to this song ~ it is almost as if Calypso is a Siren who has lured the sailor in and kept him on her island. Lyrically and musically this is a great song and one of the high points of the album.
"Salt of the waves
And of tears
And though he, pulled away
I kept him here for years
I let him go"
This isn't one of my favourite Vega tracks by any means. I found it quite difficult to connect to and, although well written and performed, I didn't find it had the powerful element of some of the other songs. It seems to be about words and how sometimes people don't mean what they say and that words can be misinterpreted.
"I won't use words again
They don't mean what I meant
They don't say what I said"
Some people have said that they don't like this track, but I really do. It is soft, folky and carried me along with the words and flowing music. To me this song paints a picture ~ it is descriptive and reminds me of the song a minstrel would sing. It is quite a romantic tale and is a little less depressing than some of the images Vega gives the listener.
"You come from far away
With pictures in your eyes"
***Wooden Horse (Casper Hauser's song)***
This song intrigued me when I first heard it. I wasn't quite sure what it was all about, so I actually did a bit of research to find out about Casper Hauser. It turned out that he was a boy found (aged 16) all alone in Nuremburg after being deprived of all human contact throughout his childhood. When you know the history of Casper the song has more meaning and is quite a moving folk story. He couldn't speak and hadn't seen the simple things that we take for granted. This is a very good song that would have been a very strong way to end the album.
"I came out of the darkness
Holding one thing
I know I have a power
I am afraid I may be killed"
***Tom's Diner (Reprise)***
Solitude Standing ends as it began with Tom's Diner. This time it is an instrumental version ~ in direct contrast to the acapella version that started the listener's journey through the album.
~~~WHAT TANGE THOUGHT.
This is a good album but NOT a stunning one! There are outstanding tracks (like Luka, Solitude Standing, Gypsy and Calypso), but there are also a few weaker links that let it down a bit in places. When compared to her first (self titled Album) this one isn't quite as sharp and as easy to listen to. Suzanne Vega (released originally in 1985) is more acoustic and this one is a little more up tempo and has more of a rocky song at times.
Despite my criticisms when comparing this to some of Vega's other work I am still impressed with Solitude Standing and really rate it as a whole. It is more dramatic than her debut album and manages to combine different elements to make a "different" and listenable sound. It starts slowly and builds gradually to a middle section that is energetic and challenging. Throughout it is lyrically impressive, although occasionally let down by a couple of slightly jarring instrumental bits!
Vega's voice is a real pleasure to listen to ~ slightly husky, folky and very pleasing on the ear. She sings with feeling and is able to immerse me, as the listener, completely in the song. I have been known to pass a good few hours listening without realising I have been engrossed for song. I can give no greater recommendation than that!
For me it has continued to be a favourite album and one that is never far from my CD player. I will always have a soft spot for Solitude Standing ~ it marked the start of my Suzanne Vega music collection. I still remember the first time I heard Luka on the radio and I'm really glad I took the time to find out more about this talented female vocalist.
***My copy of the CD of Solitude Standing was purchased a long time ago. It is currently priced at £8.99 in HMV if you fancy buying it***
Suzanne Vega has long since slipped off the radar when comes to contemporary singer-songwriters, so much so that mentioning her name in a conversation that would involve warm nods of agreement to the likes of Tori Amos, Dido or Beth Orten would quite possibly greet blank stares. On the other hand sing this couplet “My name is Luka / I live on the second floor” and most people would be on familiar territory. ‘Solitude Standing’ is the parent album from which that worldwide hit, ‘Luka’, probably the only top 10 single to deal with child abuse, was taken. Tragically therefore Vega’s influence on the aforementioned artists seems to have gone largely unacknowledged. Originally released in 1987, ‘Solitude Standing’ was Vega’s second album, following her self-titled debut. It is actually a collection of songs written by Vega over a period of ten years but is worlds apart from her first LP in terms of sound. Compared with the gentle folky tendencies that characterised her first album, ‘Solitude Standing’ is a far more polished and crisp affair, in places very much bearing the hall marks of 80s production, although it is a far less commercial record then ‘Luka’ would suggest. In retrospect this is probably Vega’s most mainstream record, rather neatly combining the lyric heavy songs of her debut with a dash of pop. After the commercial failure ‘Days of Open Hand’, Vega’s subsequent releases, ‘99.9 F’ and ‘Nine Objects of Desire’, moved to a more experimental, production heavy sound, losing some of the melodic simplicity of her earliest releases. So I shall begin with the track that most of you will know. With its ringing guitar line and delicious melody ‘Luka’ became a massive worldwide hit. The track opens with a chinese sounding keyboard and a gentle acoustic guitar but before the several jangling elec
trics join the mix as the drums kick in. The mid paced pop sensibility forms an interesting contrast with the slightly disturbing lyrics, which subtly hint at a tale of child abuse behind closed doors. Vega is challenging our tendency to ignore the obvious when it intrudes a little too close to home, the repetition of the line “Just don’t ask me what it was” illustrates the songs key theme. Written from the perspective of the abused of the abused child, we are given a tantalising hint of his life without the unsettling details. Vega’s plaintive delivery highlights the narrators resignation, wonderfully depicted through the lyric “They only hit until you cry / After that you don’t ask why.” Opener ‘Tom’s Diner’, with its slightly surreal acapella vocal may also sound familiar. This is due the 1991 cover version by DNA which sampled Vega’s lyric and added a dance backdrop. The original recording present here sounds strangely empty when compared to that version, one of the rare examples of a cover improving the original. Laid bare here with no accompaniment other then Vega’s voice there is nevertheless a kind of hypnotic beauty to the simple melody. Listen carefully to this and then to Dido’s ‘Thank You’ and you can see where the latter gained some of her inspiration. The song paints a vivid picture of a snap shot in time, as the narrator watches the world go by drinking a hurried morning coffee. The vocal pauses and shakes with emotion as a memory stirs and then is quickly set aside, as the day continues. ‘Solitude Standing’ is not an album of simplistic pop songs, with the exception of ‘Luka’ the closest to the traditional verse-chorus-verse formula is ‘Gypsy’. A gentle lilting folk song with a slightly Irish feel to it, the song is simplistic but strangely moving. The uncluttered production put Vega’s voice
to the forefront with a acoustic guitar and a restrained string section creating deliciously warm backdrop. The lyrics may be pastiche of traditional folk or a heavily metaphorical tribute to lover long past, it makes little difference although the refrain has a personal and sexual touch to it “Curl me up inside you / And let me hear you through the heat." ‘Calypso’ in contrast has a nakedly personal lyric, couched in a metaphor. Based on the Calypso’s Isle section of the Odyssey, Vega’s vocal betrays the personal element to her poetic image. Gently controlled cymbals and sighing strings evoke the windswept beach where Vega/Calypso sings her lament. Quick resume for those who don’t know, Calypso rescues Odysseus when Neptune destroys his ship and then keeps him on her island for seven years before reluctantly letting him return to his search for Greece. Although you could interpret the song as a straight retelling of this section of the Odyssey, it seems obvious that Vega has a clear affinity with the title character, lamenting for a lover lost yet knowing it had to be. The empathy evident in her vocal suggests deeper connotations. The subtle melody lends the track a sense of defiant despair, the instrumentation is atmospheric whilst allowing Vega’s voice to soar. The line “I let him go” is tinged with poignancy and a slight hint of bitterness. ‘Wooden Horse’ is another piece written in character and serves as a both a comparative piece and a contrast to ‘Calypso’. The song is based on the 18th century story of an enigmatic ‘wild child’ Caspar Hausen. A boy who at age 16 was delivered to the authorities unable to speak other then the phrase “I want to be a rider like my father”. The boy was educated and reported that he had spent his life in an underground cell but had no idea as to the identity of his jailer. Rumours of royal
decent surrounded the boy and he was murdered in 1832, remaining an enigmatic figure to this day and inspiring much literature. The track is far darker then anything else on the album, oppressive drums and a deep bass dominate with Vega’s voice a low whisper for much of the song. The bleak texture is added by the first person lyric which hints at the narrators knowledge of both his identity and his impending demise “I know I have this power / I am afraid I may be killed.” Whilst the music is far darker in tone to ‘Calypso’ the lyrics and the gentle building of tension in the chorus create a similar feel of defiance. The persuasive melody of the chorus contrasts with the instrumentation creating a memorable juxtaposition. For me this is one of the highlights of the entire record and would have made an ideal closing piece. Sadly some of the atmosphere generated is lost when the parping trumpets of the ‘Tom’s Diner’ reprise begin. Unfortunately the album is not a completely consistent listen. ‘In the Eye’ is an interesting exercise in rhythmic experimentation but the absence of a memorable melody means it quickly passes the listener by. Whilst it is only the hint of Enya in the central section of ‘Language’ that saves the track from being equally forgettable. Even so the tracks slightly out of tune guitars and ghostly harmonies jar a little with the calming soundscape which is otherwise created by the song, but perhaps that was the point. Occasionally Vega shoots herself in the foot a little, the market traders coda to ‘Ironbound’ grates with the smooth melody of the main body of the song. Meanwhile whilst the title track is an energetic and driving piece of music with a clever piece of personification “Solitude stand by the window / I’m struck once again by her black silhouette.” It struggles a little to escape the crushing weight of the productio
n which tries to fit one too many instruments into the mix. These criticisms are however, a little churlish. Even the weakest track present here is worth a listen with some clever lyrical conceit or a hint of playfulness in the melody. There is nothing here which jars completely, or you would want to skip through. The album stands up well when taken as a complete work. If you are intrigued by the picture of Suzanne Vega I’ve presented here then this album is an ideal starting point, although the eponymous debut is also well worth a listen. Personally I feel her later work is far weaker then this material, although it will be interesting to hear her forthcoming release ‘The Mother and the Matador’ (Sounds a bit like a concept album don’t you think?), when it is released later this year. Even if it disappoints I for one will be listening to this record for years to come.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Tom's Diner
3 Iron Bound / Fancy Poultry
4 In The Eye
5 Night Vision
6 Solitude Standing
10 Wooden Horse (Casper Hauser's Song)
11 Tom's Dine