Of all the outstanding tracks on “Nine Objects of Desire,” perhaps none is as intriguing as “Headshots.” Immediately after the album’s release, a number of people on undertow wrote about this song, about its uneasy blend of child-like simplicity and a dark, sinister subtext–it’s by far the most unsettling and unnerving song on the album. Here are some thoughts on this remarkable song.
1. “Headshots” extends Suzanne Vega’s stripped-down and unadorned instrumentation style into interesting new territory. Vega has always tended towards very austere arrangements, such as in “Cracking” and “Tom’s Diner.” “Headshots” ultra simple instrumentation–the bass and snare drum carry almost all of the rhythm and melody–help it to stand out from the more melodic, lush arrangements on “Nine Objects,” such as on “Caramel”, “World Before Columbus,” and “Thin Man.” The simplicity of the arrangement is further emphasized by the very basic synthesizer melody. The synthesizer line seems to deliberately mimic the relatively crude, simple sound heard on early synthesizer recordings, such as those by Wendy/Walter Carlos. The keyboard melody is also reminiscent of the “spooky” music heard in Hollywood ghost movies for kids. (If this was an intentional effect by Vega/Froom, then the humor is delicious: the music helps to instantly set a “creepy” setting for the song while at the same time lightening the mood by making a reference to something obviously meant for a kiddy’s matinee!)
2. “Headshots” combines the introspective lyric and perspective of a song like “Cracking” (the narrator’s wandering, the same subjective viewpoint, a similar sense of the narrator seemingly unstable) with an almost hip-hop beat, like a long-lost flip side to DNA’s version of “Tom’s Diner.” It’s also a wonderfully subtle way of bringing a New York street-feel to the song, since walking down many of the streets in New York, such as along the stretch of electronic stores on 5th Avenue around 43rd Street, one hears a lot of the sound of rap/hip-hop music blaring from the stores, the beat of the music matching the rhythm of your footsteps.
3. The song is full of playful, subtle sound effects, especially the luxurious breath that opens the song and the simple whistling at the end. The intake of Suzanne’s breath, recorded and mixed in such a way as to sound like it’s coming from inside your own head, heightens the subjective viewpoint in a very simple, subtle, but effective manner. The whistling bears a resemblance to the tune heard in Fritz Lang’s film “M,” one of the more sinister, dark films produced, and also serves to convey a sense of forced casualness (like whistling in the graveyard?) Trivia note: Released in 1931, “M” is based on the true story of a German child-killer and was originally called “Murderer Among Us.” In it, Peter Lorre plays Berkert, a cherubic, tortured killer who, whistling the theme from the troll’s dance in Griegg’s “Peer Gynt,” stalks little girls in the shadowy streets of Dusseldorf. This was Lang’s first sound film and he makes brilliant use of the sound of children singing macabre ditties (“The evil man in black will come with his little chopper. He will chop you up”), hurdy-gurdies, cuckoo clocks, and the killer’s whistle. Through these means, Lang creates an atmosphere of guilt, compulsion, and paranoia. Unintended or not, I think Suzanne’s song is effective in part because it pushes on many of the same emotional buttons and fears as does Lang.
4. The “middle 8 bars” of the song–“on a day/ as cold and grey/as today”–is a very simple section and lasts for all of a few seconds, but is one of loveliest moments in any of her songs. In those few bars, the instrumentation and mixing of the song creates the illusion of the narrator
stopping for a moment, looking into the sky, and reflecting for a moment, before plunging back into the narrow confines of her thoughts. This contrast between the confined, narrow, “prison” of our thoughts and brief moments of space, freedom, and light is also heard to great effect in her song “Big Space” from “days of Open Hand,” where the narrator, for a few bars, steps out of her inward thoughts and contemplates the space around her (“all feeling/falls into the big space”).
5. The image of the boy on the poster–the eyes that follow you, the ambiguous expression on his face, the shadows–is an image Vega has occasionally employed in a number of her other great songs such as “Marlene on the Wall” or “Solitude Standing.” The sense of paranoia when you feel you’re being watched is both unsettling as well as “normal” in a city like
“Headshots” is perhaps the best song on “Nine Objects”, a subtle, mesmerizing gem.