TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES (OUT NEXT WEEK) IS SUZANNE VEGA’S EIGHTH STUDIO ALBUM – AND HER FIRST NEW MATERIAL SINCE 2007’S ARTISTICALLY RICH BUT WOEFULLY UNDERVALUED BEAUTY AND CRIME.
The Queen Of Pentacles – as if you didn’t know – is a positive Tarot card often representing a domestic balance settled between material comforts and nurturing femininity.
On her new album’s springy first single FOOL’S COMPLAINT, Vega expresses hatred for The Queen – though she’s in character as another of the cards in the deck. The Fool – a “merry rootless man” – is a gadabout seemingly ignorant of, certainly resistant to, any of the spiritual rewards a well-rounded warm fire situation might have to offer. It’s one of several tracks employing a finely honed technique of masks and the language of the mythical or mystic to explain the mundane, on an album Vega describes as “ten new songs each telling a story that has to do with the material world, the spirit world and how they intersect”.
And how they intersect… Amidst the enormous dramatic swell of an orchestra, SONG OF THE STOIC – sequel to 1987 hit LUKA – picks up the abused child’s story during broken mid-life. There is no happy ending. The affecting SILVER BRIDGE details the passing of Vega’s father-in-law, and grief is also to be found elsewhere – though between the lines. Vega had hoped friend Lou Reed might remain well enough to contribute to the record, but it was not to be. His presence still permeates angular I NEVER WEAR WHITE, a warning strut on which it’s hard not to imagine his grisled tone: “Black is for secrets, outlaws and dancers – for the poet of the dark”.
Produced by Vega’s trusted long-term right hand man Gerry Leonard – Spooky Ghost himself – TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES exists in a bizarre Venn Diagram with David Bowie’s 2013 comeback, having called on the impressive talents of several friends who appeared on THE NEXT DAY: bassists Gail Anne Dorsey and Tony Levin; drummers Zachary Alford and Sterling Campbell. Despite the personnel, Vega’s album was never likely to deal up much akin to Bowie’s futuristic r’n’b. Mostly, it plays to familiar aspects of the New York songwriter’s signature Autumnal sound (often seeming to refer back to the urban pastoral of 2001’s SONGS IN RED AND GREY, with acoustic guitars, mandolins, harmoniums and the like).
But Leonard’s thoughtful production sometimes layers in moments of contemporary surprise. His attention to detail is often downplayed and quietly remarkable. Vega sings “His mission: the transmission of technology” on PORTRAIT OF THE KNIGHT OF WANDS, as tightly delayed soft-edged abstract guitar flickers across archaic scenery, like anachronistic jammed radio signals ghosting in from the future.
This blend of the anticipated and the unexpected, the new and the old, is most pronounced on the tongue-twisting beat poem DON’T UNCORK WHAT YOU CAN’T CONTAIN. Scott Storch’s dizzying Arabic strings are sampled from 50 Cent’s hip-hop CANDY SHOP, while Vega’s liquid language sizzles and steams away over hot coal rhythms. Though she’s no stranger to boiling up dancefloors (TOM’S DINER was reheated to great effect by DNA in 1990, acting as precursor to the partly radical 99.9F°), Vega’s sonics surprise here for the first time in years, offering something which seems likely to have remixers corkscrewing their attentions.
After the charming CLOSE UP series (a four album exercise in re-recording back catalogue material) Vega’s TALES FROM THE REALM OF THE QUEEN OF PENTACLES is a fitting ‘proper’ successor to BEAUTY AND CRIME. It suggests that, despite her often dark poetry, there is still plenty of songwriting light yet to be shone.