33 at 33: Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing (the one with Tom’s Diner & Luka)

“My name is Suza 

I’ve put out an album before 

I’ve had two hits on here 

So yes I’ll bet you’ve heard me before 

If you want something folk pop like 

Some kind of sound better than alright 

Then buy this album just because”

Many artists need a few releases under their belt before they officially find their own style of music. Some may find what makes them unique right away. I think you can safely say Suzanne Vega fits into the latter grouping. Her gentle folk-style and pop influenced production began with her self-titled word-of-mouth debut in 1985, which allowed her to build up a cult following.  

Personally, I have a soft spot for Marlene On The Wall, the album’s most notable single, and it evokes memories of this fresh faced freshman in his first term at college, somewhat nonplused by the subject matter other than I felt certain it was something to do with that elderly actress who’d come out of retirement to star in a movie with David Bowie. What was her name? Oh yes, Marlene Dietrich.

A similar musical theme would spill into Vega’s most acclaimed project two years later with the sophomore Solitude Standing. The way that she switches up the production, while still bringing a certain level of gentle uniqueness to the 1980s, was quite exceptional. You can argue that a lot of folk bands emulate her style nowadays (hallo Lord Huron and Bon Iver) thus it’s safe to say that this album has aged pretty darn well.

Hit by a spot of writer’s block, Vega drew on some older songs as well as newer ones for Solitude Standing, which is her commercial highpoint and features arguably her most famous compositions. What makes Solitude Standing such an impressive entry into the rock canon is Vega’s ability to tell a story. Whether fictional or not, many of the songs on this project can be relatable, comedic, or mature. Vega has an acute sense of detail that has developed in the indie-rock genre for quite some time. It feels almost poetic at certain points.

Her descriptive language used on the first single, Tom’s Diner is funny, light, and engaging. If you’re not familiar with the original version, this is where Suzanne goes a cappella in all its untouched, nursery rhyme beauty, and many consider this to be the most well-known song of her career (or at least a version of it is: a dance remix by the DNA Disciples was a belated Top Five hit around the world in 1990). The infectious rhythm that she uses with just her evocative delicate voice sets the mood nicely here as well by starting the song with the delicious lyrics, “I am sitting in the morning at the diner on the corner.”

Tom gives way to the chiming, melancholy Luka, her infamous tale of child abuse, sets in. It’s undoubtedly one of her finest melodies, and one of the album’s high points.

Whether she’s being literal or abstract (Language, Wooden Horse), Vega painted mental pictures better than just about anyone else was in 1987, save Morrissey and Neil Tennant, obviously.

Most of the music here is nothing out of the ordinary, but it compliments the vivid lyrics perfectly. It’s more than basic acoustic folk though, and is noticeably more fuller-sounding and rock-oriented than the icy acoustic Leonard Cohen-esque writing of the debut, but Vega never once trades her songwriting talent or compromises her artistic style.

Indeed, there’s an affecting artiness, even an off (left of) centre weirdness to certain tracks that keeps you coming back for more. But there’s still much more to discover here.

The nocturnal beauty of Night Vision is a buried gem if ever there was one; Ironbound/Fancy Poultry mixes a slow, Spanish-style sway with highly evocative, skilled lyrics; Calypso, written while Vega was in her late teens, features an unusual time signature and Vega flexing her vocal chops into the stratosphere.

In The Eye is one of the set’s most layered songs, while the mysterious title track is effective and beguiling. The bewitching Language is another buried gem on the album, as is the haunting, heavily percussive Wooden Horse and the odd cuckoo-clock reprise of Tom’s Diner.

But this isn’t fey folk. Her voice is glacial cool and doesn’t stray into vibrato, lending her compositions a stark but always intimate atmosphere. The tasteful synthesisers offer the same wintry atmosphere of her debut, but this is far less raw and Vega’s voice is more tamed. Her lyrics are, as ever, perfection, and this is one of her strongest and most consistent albums. Very much a late night, sit by yourself in the dark and listen record.

Way ahead of any Billboard placings on home turf, Solitude Standing solidified Vega’s position as the ultimate alternative pop/folk queen, entering the British charts on 9 May 1987 at No.2; still her greatest solo success to date, and a position equalled by the DNAfied Tom’s Diner three years later.

All together now, De der der der, de der der der, de der der der der, de der, der, der.

Steve Pafford 

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