Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (2014), Suzanne Vega’s eighth album of entirely new material, is for this listener, her finest album yet, a significant creative milestone but also in many respects, a surprising one. Surprising in that one is somewhat forgiven for thinking it unlikely that a recording artist nearing the 30th anniversary of their first album (Suzanne Vega, released May 1985) would so authoritatively surpass all of her previous efforts. She does so in a way that doesn’t reject the musical and thematic ideas of her past, nor recycle past glories, but instead builds upon lifelong motifs and then points the way forward, musically, with assurance and confidence.
In a tightly edited 36 minutes and 44 seconds of music Vega invites us into the realm of her rich life-of-the-imagination (a major recurrent theme throughout her entire career) in “Crack in the Wall,” injects her dry sense of humor in “Fool’s Complaint,” “I Never Wear White,” and “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain”, contemplates the mysteries of identity and fate in songs such as “Portrait of the Knight of Wands,” “Song of the Stoic,” and Jacob and the Angel” and then disarms with the child-like wonder and tenderness of “Silver Bridge” and “Horizon (There Is A Road).”
Laced throughout are melodies and instrumentation that runs the gamut from the driving (“Crack in the Wall,” “Fool’s Complaint”), the exotic (“Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain,” “Jacob and the Angel”), and even gospel-infused soulfulness (“Laying On Of Hands”). The credit for this inspired musicality lies with both Vega and her musical director Gerry Leonard, who shares the music credit with Vega, produced the recording, and lent his accomplished musicianship on each track. Particularly noteworthy on this album is the use of backing vocals in ways that adds in some songs a sad melancholy (“Song of the Stoic”) and in others an energy and urgency found rarely in Vega’s prior music (“Fool’s Complaint,” “Jacob and the Angel,” “Laying on of Hands”).
In a uniformly strong album three songs have already found a special place in my personal playlist: “Fool’s Complaint” with its addictive lyrical and musical hooks (such as the wonderful sound-phrase “Providence as my plan”) and its self-effacing humor; the enigmatic “Portrait of the Knight of Wands” which features a beautiful nylon string guitar by Vega, a richly atmospheric lyric, and an unexpected, brilliant instrumental fade-out that works like a cinematic slow reverse zoom, the camera of our mind’s eye gliding back across a dark and blasted landscape; “Jacob and the Angel,” a song that starts immediately at a point of tension (the guitar, the hand-clapping) and then inexorably tightens the rack through both the instrumentation, the backing vocals, as well as the lyric that where certain words advance the narrative and act as another point of rhythmic emphasis (“teeth,” “beneath”).
Given the preponderance of images of fate and chance in the work, and its presentation of the nature of life itself as essentially unknowable, it is appropriate that Vega’s work seems to have materialized, magically, from some unfathomable musical universe mediated through Vega’s own dreamworld.