Six years in the pop music world is a long time. In fact, for many artists, it's a lifetime or two. Suzanne Vega has been away from recording for a long time, but it isn't because she hasn't been working. She is the subject of Some Journey, a documentary film by Christopher Seufert; in addition, she hosted a memorial concert for her late brother, artist Timothy Vega in 2002, performed with Bill Frisell at the Century of Song concerts in Germany, hosted the American Public Media series American Mavericks (which won a Peabody Award), played a huge gig in Central Park in 2006, played live in the online game Second Life (she was the first artist of many to do so), got remarried, and changed record labels. She's also been writing songs: lots of them. Songs in Red and Gray, her last offering for A&M, was issued just two weeks after 9/11. Beauty and Crime is a lengthy meditation on the city of New York, the place she calls home. These songs glide like a harlequin's ghost through the hearts and minds of city residents past and present, on its streets, in its hotels, apartments, in every corner of the city. There is more than the hint of memory on Beauty & Crime. The album is dedicated to the memory of Tim, who lived on "Ludlow Street" -- the name of the set's second cut, a searing and simply moving tribute to him -- and cites as muses in part "...Edith Wharton and all her heroines...and Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner for their passion," and who have songs named for them here. In doing so, 9/11 itself cannot be left out of the equation, and the album's final two cuts deal with personal versions of this story, one of which is informed by her brother-in-law Angel Ruiz, a New York City cop stationed at Ground Zero after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Most of these songs look at life in the interim, or remembering what the city was like in the '70s as on the cut "Zephyr and I."
Musically, this is easily her most adventurous record ever; yet it is also more accessible than any album since her debut. The craft and care put into the songs themselves and their articulation by Vega and producer Jimmy Hogarth are amazing. Here, emotions are laid bare in places whether in the first, second, or third persons, but they are always placed inside elegant yet spare lyrics that are taut, poetic, and evocative. The dreamy soundscape contains layers of guitars, percussion (organic, electronic and live, in one case) strings, reeds, brass, and backing singers (including daughter Ruby Froom who appears on a couple of cuts, and KT Tunstall who appears once). But it's the sound of Vega's acoustic guitar on all these songs that is unmistakably at the top and provides the album's anchor. It's important to note this, simply because it keeps these beautiful pop songs rooted in a new kind of contemporary folk that Vega was a pioneer of in the '80s. And it keeps her rooted to her own catalog, from the beginning to the present. In other words, as she has experimented in the past with all kinds of sounds, she has forever remained herself and never more so than here, whether it's the jazzy, faux bossa nova of "Pornographer's Dream" or its predecessor, the stunning "New York Is a Woman." "Frank and Ava," is a rocking pop tune whose electric and acoustic guitars entwine, seemingly kissing, wrapped around a bassline played by Tony Shanahan from the Patti Smith Group. The deliberate interweaving of strings and her guitar on "Edith Wharton's Figurines" offers a glimpse of the late author's studied cool and dignity as it speaks from the voices of her characters to a songwriter who can see not only herself, but the anonymous millions of others living in and around New York City. "Bound," whose title is attended by a glimpse of Vega's wedding to poet and lawyer Paul Mills (who waited for her for 26 years), along with "As You Are Now," about her daughter (which also contain a photograph of its subject) are among the most nakedly personal songs she has ever written. "Angel's Doorway" is as pointed a musical vignette as one is likely to hear in a pop song. With electric guitars, a seemingly cheesy synth line, droning bassline, and sparkling acoustic guitar with the flat thud of the percussion offers its tonalities of the various voices of those in the city who have been snuffed out but live inside the subject.
The final track, "Anniversary," written a year after 9/11, opens with Vega's guitar skeletally framing her melody. It is the contemplative sound of a city that's gone on, changed forever yet forever itself, despite it being "thick with ghosts, the wind whips 'round its circuitries...as they meet you on each corner/meet you on each street..." even as the residents are exhorted to "watch for daily braveries/notice newfound courtesies/finger sudden legacies..." The song isn't a eulogy, it's the sound that does not simply memorialize, but opens a new chapter. Artists have always helped the rest of us make sense of upheaval, tragedy, tumultuous change, confusion and the darkness that often accompanies history. On Beauty & Crime, Vega accomplishes this in spades, but without any ideologies or with empty, overly simplistic ruminations or platitudes. Her grief is personal and so is her sense of gratitude, dignity, and love -- especially when it's hard. The opening words to "Ludlow Street," way back on track two, sum it up directly and may be the credo of the entire album: "Love is the only thing that matters/Love is the only thing that's real/I know we hear this every day/It's still the hardest thing to feel." Beauty& Crime is, without reservation, the defining creative moment of Suzanne Vega's career thus far, and a morally and emotionally communicative recording that instructs even as it confesses from inside, and reports from the margins and becomes, in its graceful impurity, a vision that is singular and utterly direct. ~ Thom Jurek