This is a new reworking of a very forgotten gem. Suzanne Vega has been steadily rerecording acoustic versions of old material, arranging the results by theme; love, family, states of being. Coming from most artists, such a project would be presumed to be an easy cash grab. And I think Vega has said that straightening out some byzantine copyright arrangements was, indeed, part of the motivation. Nobody’s motives are ever quite pure, and that shouldn’t sully the final product. Vega was interested in dusting off various obscure songs from her back catalog so she could explore them in a new context. Her new arrangements shine a fresh perspective on songs both familiar and never released. It’s ambitious and interesting, and it does justice to some great songs. Days of Open Hand, the album this track was plucked from, is Vega’s most underrated, and deserves to be lifted from obscurity.
This, a song about asking forgiveness, feels a little mournful for today. But also thought provoking, if you want to dwell on thoughts about grace. Penitence, grace, and forgiveness are pillars in the doctrines of every faith I know of. Perhaps guidance for navigating those things is the reason we have religion in the first place. The asking and dispensing of forgiveness may be, out of the emotional events we humans experience, the most spiritual. It is certainly the most difficult thing to ask forgiveness, or to give it, and that may be why we’ve tied it so much into doctrine and ceremony. You may take a dim view of organized religion, or question whether it even still has a place in the modern world, but if there’s one benefit to mankind that religion continues to provide it’s teaching people how to humble themselves emotionally. That’s why it may be impossible to make contrition and forgiveness your subject – in song, or in any other art – without invoking religious feeling. You can just be sorry to one person before you, but as an artist you have to be sorry before God as well.
That’s right, there’s no such thing as a cheap thrill. Take it from Suzanne Vega, here at her most glamorous, but no less perceptive for having put on a cocktail dress. Everything’s a gamble, and you never know how much you’re going to end up losing. That may be a dark way of hearing a pretty perky sounding song, but excuse me, I have my mind in the gutter.
Is there an evocation of myth to be found in those moments spent lying awake in a darkened room? Some line to be drawn from your own disoriented eyes to the forces that drive humanity? You feel very existential alone in the dark. You muse about your place in the world, the insignificance of it. You wonder if that shadow in the corner was there before. Suzanne Vega captures those feelings with grace. The intersection of the ordinary and sublime can lie anywhere and it’s the artist’s job to point that out. This is one such intersection.
I love a good New York metaphor; if any place can support an extravagant extended poetic comparison, it’s the Big Apple. Using the ineffable feminine mystique as a broad metaphor, on the other hand, is a tricky business. Not many poets have the deft touch to pull it off, but luckily Suzanne Vega is both a lifelong observer of New York’s ebbs and flows, and an empathetic ladyperson not likely to fall into any of the more obvious entendres. If some dude with a ginger ponytail and an acoustic guitar wanted to put forth all the ways that New York is womanlike, it would not go over well. But Suzanne Vega can play with it and she plays it well. These are cliches, rescued from the bins of hard boiled noir and emo fuckboy sentimentality. New York is a temptress. She’s glamorous and indifferent. She’s an old school femme fatale. She lives up to her legends. Lines to be expected from the mouths of men who’ve neither been to New York or with a woman. So Suzanne Vega, a New York City woman, smartly dismisses them and the entire industry of romantic tropes that smogs up the city.
An ode to unrequited desire. Suzanne Vega, of course, can make any topic sound elegant and intellectual. Her trick is the balance of refinement and deep emotion. She’s a cerebral person, I guess. Her use of the plum metaphor is particularly powerful; fruit has long symbolized the sexy and forbidden, though the luscious plum has somehow been outshone by the hardier apple, the naughtier cherry, and the racist watermelon. Plums are sexy – they are sweet and juicy and have a rich color and lustrous, slightly translucent skin. They are also more pricey than apples or nectarines, which makes them more desirable. Yes, the world of the fruit plate is deeply evocative of fleshly desires. Poets and artists have returned to sweet and humble treats for inspiration since Biblical times. Maybe they were just hungry… In Vega’s case, I don’t think she was just hungry. The name of the album is, after all, Nine Objects of Desire, almost a concept album, except that if desire was considered a ‘high concept’ to write about, every album would be a concept album. To underline the point, the singer holds a brilliantly hued green apple, in sharp contrast with her signature red hair. It’s as provocative an image as Suzanne Vega has ever sat for. She’s always written about affairs of the heart with incredible delicacy; this time the condition of longing is explored from every angle and the temptation of delicious fruit is not forgotten.
Ah, phantom limb syndrome, a common and popular topic for songwriters since the dawn of times. And a great metaphor for other things in life. Not to make fun, though. It’s actually a deeply unusual choice of topic and a fresh metaphor for other things in life. Which is why Suzanne Vega is such a great writer. She makes connections that are surprising but makes complete sense. Losing parts of yourself physically is something most people will likely never have to go through, aside from garden variety declining vision and hearing loss, but it’s a near-universal fear. Losing less tangible parts of ourselves, on the other hand, is just about inevitable. We lose our innocence, we lose idealism, we lose things and people we love, we lose large chunks of our sanity. And just like people whose brain still sends commands to body parts that are no longer there, we go on mentally interacting with people who are out of our lives, reaching for possessions we’ve lost, and reliving old memories, whether we like doing those things or not.