Suzanne Vega

Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles

Lyrics are usually the last thing to draw me in to a song, so it is telling that while I might struggle to recall in detail particular arrangements on Suzanne Vega’s albums, I can sing along to most of her songs. It’s not that the instrumentation isn’t interesting, but rather that it always takes backstage, serving her singing with economy and pith, this singing that mesmerises like the expanse of a cloudless Texan sky. 

The tarot imagery and artwork of Vega’s latest album, Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles might be a bit too early-1990s-teen-Galadriel-in-black-DMs, all crushed velvet and silver pendants, but then there’s that voice. It’s been seven years since her last album of new material, and more than double that since I listened to 99.9F on loop for weeks at a time. And yet, from the opening line – "A crack appeared inside a wall / And a door sprang up around it…" slowly, deliberately –  I’m home. This voice, so clean and clear and modest, it’s like the vocal equivalent of William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow. This voice that deftly wields lyrics both bookishly wordy and as spare and human as Ray Carver, and keeps you hanging on to every syllable. This voice that quite remarkably is unchanged since Vega sang "We go to the playground in the winter time…" on her self-titled debut in 1985. 

From the first Narnia-esque line, Vega unfolds the album’s ten songs into as many fables, populated by queens and angels, genies and prisoners, stoics and fools. She fills in the air around them with winged things and growing shadows, wildernesses and last horizons – in under 40 minutes, she’s conjured up entire histories, a master storyteller with a tale to tell and all the time in the world. 

Driving folk rhythms that recall Laura Marling’s ‘Devil’s Spoke’ underpin many of the songs, in particular ‘Crack In The Wall’ and ‘Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain’. ‘I Never Wear White’ is the most straightforward and catchy in imagery and riff, with co-writer and producer Gerry Leonard on electric guitar and Jay Bellerose’s marching percussion propelling it forward, while ‘Jacob And The Angel’ marries an addictive hand-claps and steady bass line beat with expansive ‘Explosions In The Sky’-style guitars. ‘Portrait Of The Knight Of Wands’ is simply beautiful. Ancient vistas and a man’s inner struggle play out in plucked nylon arpeggios and shuddering electronic textures as Vega sings of "The daisies on the ramparts / Blowing free". Birds and clouds gather overhead.

Perhaps the finest track, ‘Silver Bridge’ achieves a warmth, a lyricism and a lightness of touch that bring to mind Sam Prekop. Leonard’s harmonium builds up beneath steady dampened strumming in a gentle ebb and flow as Vega unexpectedly lifts the melody at the end of the chorus’ "Are you standing on that bridge". The last verse repeats the first in an almost-a capella, "My heart is full today…" echoing exactly how Vega is as she is here, at her brightest and her best. 

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today