Here’s a clip of singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega with her 1996 song ‘No Cheap Thrill’ as featured on her excellent, criminally ignored Nine Objects of Desire album. Those who dismissed ‘Luka’ and ‘Tom’s Diner’ take note: there was always more to discover.
When Suzanne Vega hit the charts, she faced two typical problems among performers. First, she had a hit record in ‘Luka’ at the end of the 80s, a pop hit about child abuse so ubiquitous that it blocked everyone’s view of her potential as a long-term artist. Second, she’d appeared on the scene along with a number of other arguably comparable songwriters like Tracy Chapman, Edie Brickell, Shawn Colvin, and Indigo Girls. The British dance outfit DNA who remixed her acapella song ‘Tom’s Diner” and made it a hit in 1990 got her out of those particular ruts, but then got her into a new one. That record was also ubiquitous and hard to get around.
So, when a friend of mine gave me a spare copy of Nine Objects of Desire, I wasn’t expecting much beyond a fay voice with a series of songs about serious issues, or about impressionistic set-pieces, both corresponding to the two hits I’d heard from her. I kind of expected the Lilith Fair, if you know what I mean. I was in for a pleasant surprise, particularly with this tune which is one of my favourites on that very good album. Frankly, I didn’t quite expect it to rock quite as much as it does.
It helps perhaps that it was produced by Mitchell Froom, her husband at the time, who also had a hand in producing records by Crowded House, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Los Lobos, and many others. Froom helped build an art-pop sheen around some of Vega’s strongest material, and so she manages to escape the excesses of earnest folk-pop which often strays into maudlin territory. The result is not the sound of an artist who’s made compromises artistically, but rather one which frames her songs in a new light, and with some interesting stylistic excursions (a few Astrud Gilberto references, which really make sense for Vega’s voice) besides that get her out of the Lilith Fair ghetto.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. I hate that female singer-songwriters have become a genre. To me, that’s really patronizing, and causes the listener to lose out on a lot by imposing limitations on the performers along gender lines. Suzanne Vega of course has since proven that she’s bigger than that. And this tune is one of my favourite examples.
For more information and music, check out suzannevega.com.