Days of Open Hand
Elsewhere in this issue you can read an account of the Suzanne Vega saga — how she rose from folkie beginnings to unexpected pop stardom, disappeared for two years, and now reemerges with an album so far from commercial pop styles that it brought fear to the heart of her record company’s senior vice president of artists & repertoire.
It’s my job to report that Days of Open Hand sets standards for itself that it doesn’t quite meet. Vega’s lyrics are marvels. People talk about pop lyrics — Bob Dylan’s, let’s say — reaching the level of poetry; these really do. ”Let’s tell the future,” Vega writes. ”Let’s see how it’s been done.” I’m quoting from ”Predictions,” a song about ways of forecasting things to come: ”By numbers. By mirrors. By water./By dots made at random on paper./By salt. By dice./By meal. By mice./By dough of cakes./By sacrificial fire.” Vega’s flickering play of meaning, sound, and rhythm is far beyond ordinary.
But words this precise raise expectations that Vega’s music isn’t up to. She’s most striking when she writes terse melodic phrases, leaving dry space in which her lyrics can resonate. She does that in two songs, ”Men in a War” (about loss) and ”Those Whole Girls” (which might be a cryptic glance at people who seem so healthy you’d think they had no problems at all).
Elsewhere, Vega’s music isn’t nearly so distinctive. That’s especially true of the instrumental arrangements, which — even if we sometimes catch a hint of such ethnic instruments as the dumbek and tiple — smell not much different from the bright and sensitive orchestrations apt to accompany other folkish singer-songwriters.
One arrangement stands out. On ”Fifty-Fifty Chance,” a song about attempted suicide, Vega sings only to a string quartet accompaniment written (in a style much more flowing than his usual romantic minimalism) by Philip Glass. The precisely etched warmth of the strings sets her voice in stark relief. But now her singing sounds too bland. Glass far outdoes her in both the strength and detail of the feeling he conveys.
Grading this album on lyrics alone, I’d give it an A+. As a whole, it scores lower. B-