Yesterday we talked about how fickle the finger of popularity can be. There are a thousand stories like this in the ruthless world of music - and we're going to look at another one today, that of Suzanne Vega.
Had it not been for the runaway success of "Luka" from her second album Solitude Standing, Vega may have been relegated to the folk world permanently. However, her ability to tell a story of child abuse from the eyes of a child captivated top 40 radio and made the album a surprise success. Unfortunately, her followup Days Of Open Hand left many people unimpressed, and some wondered if Vega was a one-hit wonder.
The scene shifts to 1992, and Vega's return to the public with her fourth effort 99.9 F°, an album that had folkies running for cover with the industrial beats of the lead-off single "Blood Makes Noise." I don't remember how well the album sold, but I don't think it did as well as Vega or her record label would have wanted. Pity - it's a stark picture of beauty, and is easily Vega's best work.
"Blood Makes Noise" should have been a scream for help. Not knowing any private details of Vega's life, one could immediately rush to the judgment that the song tells the tale of a victim of some kind of abuse. Our hero is clming to grips - albeit slowly - with the horror that has been inflicted on them, but they are not mentally ready to talk about it. One lyric says it best: "I think that you might want to know / The details and the facts / But there's something in my blood / Denies the memory of the acts." Ka-pow.
In fact, 99.9 F° often tells the story of blood and doctors. "Blood Sings" is a slightly more controlled picture, though it seems to talk about the estrangement of a parent and their child and the desire to regain lost time in trade for the loss of youth and experience. One listen will not convey the mood; a serious reading of the lyrics will. "Bad Wisdom" also tries to explore the scars of horrors in a young life, though blame seems to be put on the mother for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Slowly, a very scary portrait is being painted by Vega. For me to speculate on such personal issues in such a public place would not be responsible, so I will allow the listener to reach their own conclusions. However, if you travel the same road my reasoning has, you may see this album as an autobiography of a private hell lived by Vega. For her sake, I hope I'm wrong in my conclusions.
But still other songs seem to support my theory. The lyrics speak volumes, such as the innocence of a child tarnished ("As A Child"), a subtle cry for your attention ("If it's the last thing I do / I'll make you see" from "Rock In This Pocket") and the loss of idealism in someone you look up to ("When heroes go down / They go down fast / So don't expect any time to / Equivocate the past" from "When Heroes Go Down").
No question about it - Vega is pissed at someone, and uses 99.9 F° as her case against them. If I were the person she was painting this picture of, I'd get the hell out of Dodge City real quick.
Of course, there are one or two songs which don't seem to follow this pattern, as the hauntingly beautiful "In Liverpool" is an example. Lost in all the subtext I've gotten into is the undeniable fact: Vega proves herself to be as good a songwriter and musician - if not better - than she was on "Luka." That, kids, is an accomplishment. And, no, I haven't forgotten that she enlisted the assistance of folk legend Richard Thompson and Los Lobos's David Hidalgo on this one, but they admirably take a back seat to Vega, as well they should with music as strong as this.
Maybe that's why 99.9 F° wasn't the blockbuster it should have been: such personal albums tend to scare the hell out of the listener. In this case, everyone should walk away with some fear - and if the listener is similar to Vega's antagonist, they damn well better feel some regret for screwing with someone's life. (Again, I'm just speculating - unless Ms. Vega is reading and wishes to rush to my defense.)
Fortunately, it's not too late to discover this one - I loved it for the album it was back in 1992. I love it for the messages it conveys - and I fear it for the images it portrays - today. It's just too bad an artist has to go through their greatest suffering to make their masterpiece.