On Beauty & Crime, Suzanne Vega’s Blue Note Records debut, the Manhattan native uses New York City as the backdrop for a collection of eleven new songs that juxtapose acoustic guitar-driven melodies with coolly synthesized beats; intensely personal lyrics with compelling, short story-like narratives; images of today’s scarred cityscape with memories of Vega’s old Upper West Side 'hood and Lower East Side haunts. The past commingles with the present, the public with the private, familiar sounds with the utterly new, just like the city itself. Making her first new studio album in six years, Vega says, “I feel like I really stretched my limits. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone-to sing in keys I wouldn’t have sung in before, to work with different textures, to be unafraid of doing what ever sounded good to me. I wanted to make a modern classic.”
For fans that have grown up with her, Beauty & Crime is a revealing look into Vega’s continual evolution as songwriter and recording artist. For newcomers, it affords an opportunity to discover a unique voice that has, much like fellow die-hard New Yorker Lou Reed’s, been shaped by keenly observing urban life, glancing down the side streets and peering into the shadows, empathizing with the outsiders and dreamers, the helpless and the hopeful. Reed isn’t a far-fetched comparison: Vega, a fan, has said she’d been listening to his Berlin the day she wrote “Luka,” the economically arranged, emotionally devastating story of domestic abuse from her second album, Solitude Standing, which became a surprise worldwide hit in 1987.
In Vega’s new material, New York City emerges on its own as subject and setting. As she explains, “My last album [Songs in Red and Gray] came out two weeks after September 11th. That particular album was really personal and it felt really weird to be talking about all these personal songs at a time that wasn’t like any other in New York… I spent a lot of time thinking about things in the last six years, being in New York with my daughter, walking around. It seemed natural to write a bunch of songs that were about New York or little stories that had New York as a character.”
The songs that open and close Beauty & Crime, as well as “Ludlow Street” and “Angel’s Doorway,” are among the most personal for Vega, triggered in part by remembrances of her brother Tim, who passed away in early 2002. It was at Tim’s memorial that Vega connected with his friend, legendary graffiti artist Zephyr. Like Vega, Zephyr had hung out on the Upper West Side’s West End Avenue in the seventies, when displaced teenagers turned the street into “the youth mall of America.” “Zephyr & I” has a lean, upbeat, almost Velvet Underground-style rock arrangement, softened with layers of vocal harmonies by KT Tunstall. “Ludlow Street” is a darker, more contemplative tune, featuring strings and synths, about the layers of time that one can sense in a single spot. Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side, is where Vega had gone to memorable parties when she was on the way up in the local music scene and where she would later return, under very different circumstances, to collect her brother for rehab.
In “Angel’s Doorway” Vega writes about her cousin’s husband, a cop named Angel Ruiz, who was stationed down at ground zero right after 9/11. The idea of the song came from a dinner conversation. “Anniversary,” which concludes Beauty & Crime, is an understated evocation of that time in the fall of 2002, when New Yorkers first commemorated the Twin Towers tragedy and when Vega recalled her brother’s recent passing. It’s more inspiration than elegy, though: “Make time for all your possibilities,” Vega sings at the end, in that beautiful, hushed voice. “They live on every street.”
On “New York is A Woman,” she sees those possibilities through the eyes of a man she met overseas, who recounted to her his first amazed visit to the city: “I know a lot of people feel the same way as he did, they’re knocked out flat by the seediness of it, the bigness of it, the beauty and the glamour and how gritty it can be.” On “Edith Wharton’s Figurines,” she considers the urban heroines of the classic New York author’s time-their intelligence and artifice, their vanity and fear-and contrasts them with the life of novelist Olivia Goldsmith (The First Wives Club), who died suddenly after a routine plastic surgery procedure. Vega elaborates, “Goldsmith had written a style book about using your natural beauty. I really liked it and her death made me sad. It made me think that the world hasn’t really changed that much since Wharton’s time. We do so much for beauty that we can’t really attain.”
She includes a gentle, elegantly arranged song capturing an image of her daughter at age nine (“As You Are Now”), a meditation on the impossible/irresistible relationship between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner (“Frank & Ava”) and a turbulent, string-driven number (“Bound”) about the fated reunion with the man who would become her second husband, a street poet turned civil rights lawyer. He re-entered her life more than two decades after he had originally asked her to marry him: “He was someone who had impacted the flow of my life, and I had thought about him often. There had been songs about him on other albums, and a few songs that didn’t make it onto any album, so he was somebody who had lingered in my life in various ways. He came to New York once he realized I wasn’t seeing anybody. I had just broken off a relationship. He asked if I wanted to go ice skating and within two weeks he asked me to marry him again, and this time I said yes. It took 23 years to get from ‘I’ll think about it’ to saying yes. And that song is about that moment.”
Vega began working on Beauty & Crime at home, with guitar and Garageband, but soon enlisted the help of engineer Britt Myers to help with her work on the computer. They moved to his studio, exchanged ideas and developed tracks before British musician-producer Jimmy Hogarth (Sia, Corinne Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall) came on board and Vega resumed work at larger studios in New York and London. Hogarth, whose work with Sia particularly impressed Vega, “had a sure sense of instinct. He was so young that he was open to different ways of making a record, he didn’t have a formula. I liked that he recorded in analog then fed it into the digital machine. The album has the warmth of analog but the technology of the digital world.” Among the players joining Vega and members of her touring band are guitarists Gerry Leonard (David Bowie, Rufus Wainwright) and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth (those are his ringing guitar lines on “Angel’s Doorway”); Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall contributed background vocals and vocal arrangements. Longtime collaborator Tchad Blake mixed the album.
"I had a clear image in my mind of what I wanted," Vega admits. “I wanted something that did have a slight nostalgic feeling, which you get at the beginning of ‘New York is a Woman’ with the clarinet and saxophone, a certain horn sound. But I didn’t want to lose all the textures and rhythms that are going on today, all the effects and things that you could do. I wanted to take bits and pieces and put them together in a collage kind of way, which is what feels modern to me right now.”
Vega has always been an adventurous artist, stretching the boundaries of the singer-songwriter format. When British producers DNA famously remixed her “Tom’s Diner,” giving the originally a cappella tune an ongoing life as a sought-after sample by many dance music and hip hop artists, they were simply responding to something Vega herself had done: “They felt the rhythm was already in the song and they just added to it. When I approved it, I felt that they’d expressed a part of my life that I was not able to do for myself at the time.” Similarly, German programmer Karlheinz Brandenburg, the key developer of the MP3, found that Vega’s voice was the perfect template when he began to work on the audio compression that would revolutionize music distribution, earning her the nickname “The Mother of the MP3.” Last year Vega herself ventured into the internet world by becoming the first major recording artist to perform live in avatar form within the virtual world Second Life.
As fascinating as the New Yorkers she has been inspired by, Vega herself is full of stories and surprises: the everyday revelations, the grabbed-on-the-run wisdom, the strange, random, miraculous stuff that make up a singular career — or maybe just another life in the big city.