Suzanne Vega used to be one cool cookie. ”Cerebral” hardly begins to describe the dispassionate presence she cultivated over her first few albums, wherein coolly observational, character-driven songs were presented with a Buddhist’s placidity. What’d love have to do with it? Not much. ”Sexuality has always been a big part of my life, just not what I wanted to present to the public,” she says. ”Courting an audience seemed stupid. Why pretend you’d want to have sex with thousands of men when you don’t?”
Ann-Margret she still ain’t. But Vega suddenly seems a veritable sensualist with her new album, Nine Objects of Desire. The titular objects are not so obscure, compared with her more cryptic past output: Producer Mitchell Froom, whom she married last year, and their 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, figure among the desirables, as do ex-boyfriends and unconsummated crushes both heterosexual (”Caramel”) and not (”Stockings”). Her new look — red ’40s bangs and lipstick — is sexier too. Though her biggest hit, ”Luka,” is nine years behind her, she’s just now getting round to being really accessible.
Did we say getting round? The warming of Suzanne Vega has plenty to do with the bun not long ago in the oven. ”All of a sudden things made more sense, even just from a practical point of view — finding yourself with breasts and hips and stuff. I’ve always been a skinny little girl and skinny woman, and I exploded. It was wildly disorienting, and in some ways really fun — though the birth process is something that I think they should find a better way to get done. Some of it stuck with me. I’m still not quite as boyish as I had been before. It’s like, ‘Oh! That’s what all that stuff is for.”’
Vega and Froom — famous for producing Elvis Costello and Los Lobos — first paired on 1992’s 99.9 F [degrees], which neatly retooled her icy folk into rich pop with eccentric traces of the Beatles and even industrial rock. She says the erotic electricity between them remained unspoken till well after that album was complete, since he was still in his first marriage at the time — and, anyway, her cerebral side found the idea of a female singer and a male producer falling in love terribly tacky.
When they did later undertake romance, she began to feel ”a safety I haven’t before” about appearing, well, desirable. Events in her life at age 12 she’ll only allude to — ”I found myself getting the kind of attention I didn’t want, and I couldn’t handle it” — caused her to adopt androgyny and emphasize intellect in extremis. Now, as someone who still ”hates confessional songs,” she admits worrying that some new ones — like ”World Before Columbus,” a tender ode to Ruby — might be ”too corny.”
Her preferred modus operandi remains finding ”sacred things that you can reveal in the most trivial aspects of daily life. Tom’s Diner [subject of a minor hit] is the most ordinary diner you’ve ever seen, but there’s a way you can reveal it to have this other dimension…. That’s my job: to experience ordinary things and reveal them to be the unusual things that they are. I feel like a spy in the world, and my job is to blend in with the natives and report back on what I see.” But with the new album, she determined it might be okay to report back on what she feels. ”I figure at the age of 37, if I want to start writing about love and desire, it’s not too bad. I can always go back to writing about power struggles and that kind of thing later.”