Suzanne Vega – Suzanne Vega (1985)
Although she achieved her greatest commercial success with her follow-up Solitude Standing (which spawned the singles Tom’s Diner and Luka), Suzanne Vega’s eponymous debut album is the central core of her musical output, with her subsequent work spinning out in a variety of directions thereafter, and arguably remains her finest work.
The album stood out from the crowd then, and it still does now. Disarmingly simple in its execution, every song features a rich, poetic narrative delivered in Vega’s instantly recognisable lilting, sensitive tones and accompanied by a simple arrangement that puts her acoustic guitar front and centre.
Marlene on the Wall thrust her into mainstream focus, and remains her highest-charting release in the UK (other than the DNA remix of Tom’s Diner), reaching number 21 in the spring of 1986. But from the introspection of opening track Cracking and Small Blue Thing to the understated melodrama of The Queen and the Soldier – my favourite Vega track of all – and the wry observations of Neighborhood Girls, this is an album of layered depth which remains increasingly rewarding with each subsequent play.
As I have noted elsewhere, The Queen and the Soldier was also the one song guaranteed to calm Zac and get him back to sleep when he used to wake up in the middle of the night crying inconsolably. (He would have been between nine and 12 months old at the time.) If for no other reason than that, this album will always hold a special place in my heart.
But the only one here now is me
I’m fighting things I cannot see
I think it’s called my destiny
That I am changing
Marlene on the Wall
During the spring and summer of 1986, I was taking Maths, English and French O-levels at the end of my fourth year of secondary school. (Yes, I’m that old), This was one of a handful of albums I would play on heavy rotation while revising in the evenings.
Listening to it again brings back memories of sitting in my bedroom surrounded by books and notes, and with a carefully hand-drawn, colour-coded revision timetable pinned to a cork board, which I would promptly ignore and re-draw every few days. (Then, as now, I was one of life’s great procrastinators.)
On the morning of an exam, I would set my alarm clock for 5am so I could do a couple of hours’ worth of last-minute cramming before heading into school, where I would take my allotted place among the long rows of single desks laid out in the school gym. It can’t have been true – I live in Britain, after all – but in my memory it was always baking hot inside, and I would leave the exam hall every day dripping in sweat and facing the long bus ride home to start preparing for my next exam. Nice.
A bit of a cheat, I know, but I am also reminded of Left of Center, which wasn’t on this album but featured on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack that same summer. In the way that angsty teenagers do, as an almost pathologically shy kid who was never unpopular but who could hardly be considered as one of the in-crowd, there was one line in the song which I felt at the time summed me up completely:
But I’m only in the outskirts and in the fringes
On the edge and off the avenue
In some ways, it is still entirely relevant to how I perceive myself. I am acutely aware that I am not cut from the standard mould of a business manager. It’s not a big deal, but it is something which occasionally makes me uncomfortable, while at the same time also being proud to march to the beat of a slightly different drum. That’s just who I am: never the centre of attention, just on the edge and off the avenue.
Vega attended New York’s High School of Performing Arts, on which the film and subsequent TV series Fame was based.
The song Tom’s Diner (from her second album, Solitude Standing) was used as the reference track in trials of the MP3 compression system, earning her the title ‘Mother of the MP3’. It was chosen by Karlheinz Brandenburg as the model for his compression algorithm because he was convinced it would be “nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice”.
Tom’s Diner refers to Tom’s Restaurant at 112th Street and Broadway in New York. Exterior shots of the restaurant were used in Seinfeld as the eatery where the main characters met up.
2. Freeze Tag
3. Marlene on the Wall
4. Small Blue Thing
5. Straight Lines
7. Some Journey
8. The Queen and the Soldier
9. Knight Moves
10. Neighborhood Girls
Do you own this album? If so, what memories does it evoke for you? Look out for more ‘Classic Albums’ posts coming soon.