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Album Review: Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles by Suzanne Vega
Very Good, Based on 7 Critics
American Songwriter - 80 Based on rating 4/5
Suzanne Vega achieves an admirable balance of strengths on this new studio album, her first in way too long (seven years). Lyrically and vocally, she is succinct and clear in meaning while still being poetic rather than prosaic. Yet the songs themselves – in their sly melodic twists, instrumental coloration and production (by Gerry Leonard) – are marvels of artful construction.
Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles? A song title called Portrait Of The Knight Of Wands? A sample of 50 Cent‘s Candy Shop? Has quintessential New York singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega decided to go quite mad and embark on a brave new direction combining prog rock and rap? The answer is, thankfully, no. It’s been a good seven years since her last album of original material, Beauty & Crime, was released, and it did seem for a while as if she was content to just live off her glory days. Now, after four albums of re-recorded greatest hits, the rather unwieldy titled Tales From The Realm Of The Queen Of Pentacles provides a welcome opportunity to hear some new material.
The four volumes in Suzanne Vega's Close-Up series revisited her catalog thematically with stripped-down charts. It appealed to her base of fans who patiently waited seven years for new material. The ten songs on Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles fits that bill. The set was produced by longtime associate and co-writer Gerry Leonard, and played by a weighty studio cast.
Vega’s last four albums, released under the collective Close-Up banner, found her revisiting past glories in largely intimate acoustic settings. Her first set of new songs in seven years also nods to what went before, staying true to the half-whispered, poetic sensibilities of her best work. Boasting a title any self-respecting prog rocker would be proud of, Tales From The Realm… does, however, occasionally break from tradition.
A dissonance between sound and subject matter isn't a new Vega trait - if you ignored the lyrics to Luka, her huge 1987 hit, you'd assume it was a song about crayons rather than child abuse - but on this, her first record in seven years, the discord is a new kind of awkward. Her voice, effortless and earnest as ever, seems out of step when she's sampling 50 Cent's Candy Shop, referencing Macklemore and his thrift shop, or insisting that "my colour is black, black, black". Most curious is Portrait of the Knight of Wands ("His mission: the transmission of technology") – a eulogy for Steve Jobs in ballad form? .
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.
Suzanne Vega’s first studio record in seven years is a marvel of intelligent lyrics and folkish experimental textures. Vega’s background as a literature major shows as she digs deep into mythological lore — the album title refers to a Tarot card figure, as do songs from the gentle, guitar-looped “Portrait of the Knight of Wands” to the shimmering folk-pop of “Fool’s Complaint,” where Vega says she identifies more with the madcap Fool than with the Queen and her “domestic tyranny. ” She also invokes a Book of Genesis story in “Jacob and the Angel.