Which is more important, an artist's loyalty to a muse or a fan's
loyalty to a musician? Surely, Suzanne Vega considered this quandary
following her fluke hit single "Luka" in 1987. Would she forever be labeled
a neo-folkie and left behind like some quaint, arty souvenir in a trendy
coffee shop? In the realm of modern pop stardom, fickle fans are the name
of the game and reinvention is the key to survival; the secret to longevity
lies in maintaining a dedicated fan base while gradually expanding the
scope of the music. Vega had her work cut out for her.
On "Days of Open Hand," the 1990 follow-up to "Solitude Standing," from
which "Luka" was taken, Vega diversified her music a bit, adding to the mix
elements of jazz and pop which further fleshed out her highly literate yet
familiar takes on the melancholic musings of Joni Mitchell and Leonard
Cohen. Yet that wasn't enough to convince mainstream listeners. Backed into
a corner by the limitations of her folk-rock
surroundings, Vega's hand was forced: It was put up or shut up time.
In 1993, her ambitions paid off. "99.9F" was a defining album for
Vega, recontexualizing folk-rock through the clamor of producer (and now
husband) Mitchell Froom's trademark monkeyshines and mad merry-go-round
music. Sure, Vega's familiar sigh of a singing voice remained somewhat
fragile, but it exuded personality. Besides, her adventurous songs
confounded expectations in a way that none of her previous efforts could.
"99.9F" was a strong comeback for an artist whose only problem was that her
career wasn't really going anywhere; its songs
built upon the inventive arrangements and pop sensibility only hinted at
on "Days of Open Hand."
"Nine Objects of Desire" continues to contemporize her acoustic folk
strum into the hustle and bustle of urban life. The album's title places
the various subjects of Vega's songs, from food to hosiery, on common
ground. Although the 12 album tracks ironically contradict the proffered
numerical concept, the album's thematic and musical elements cohere for a
satisfying collection of songs about desire, yearning, missing, loving and
The soulful groove of "Headshots" and the propulsive, stuttering pitter
patter of "Casual Match" (powered by the fluid rhythm section of drummer
Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas of the Attractions, among other
guests) execute the concept somewhat obliquely, but tracks like the light,
gooey cocktail-jazz of "Caramel" and the spooky, obsessive "My Favorite
Plum" (which manages to make malevolent the most harmless of fruits)
exemplify more literal expressions of craving. Most of the tracks, from
"Stockings" to "Thin Man," possess the dark, voyeuristic bent of Raymond
Carver's off-kilter stories and Krzysztof Kieslowski's poetic "Decalogue."
Only the lazy "Lolita" appears to have wandered off some B-sides collection
to die on this record.
Offering more forays into jazzy experimentalism, cruise-ship rhythms and
casual dance tracks, "Nine Objects of Desire" is also less edgy than its
predecessor, no doubt due in part to Vega's exploration of previously
uncharted (for her) territory: marriage and motherhood. "Birth-day," the
autobiographical "Honeymoon Suite," and, especially, the beautiful "World
Before Columbus" all result from this new focus on sensuality and
matrimony. Could the blood Vega heard pumping through her veins on "99.9F"
have been the call of her biological clock all along?
For "Nine Objects," Vega and Froom streamline the stylishly cacophonous
musical environment of "99.9F," focusing the disparate elements of that
album into the consistent exploration of mood and rhythm found on this one.
"Nine Objects" retains much of the same
haunting, immediate atmosphere, but the execution is more
relaxed and subtle -- a progressive regression, if that's possible. The
reinvigorated Vega continues to teeter on the precipice of brilliance.
Will she jump or should we push her?