Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is the first album of new material from Suzanne Vega since 2007’s Beauty & Crime. Following on from Suzanne’s reclaiming of her back-catalogue, with the Close Up series, this is the longest gap between new albums.
The album was produced by long-time David Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who looms large on the album, adding most of the albums electric guitar and more than a hint of the alt-rock experimentation of Bowie’s excellent The Next Day from last year.
King Crimson/ Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin is joined by recent Bowie band-members Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to underpin a lot of the songs on Tales from the Realm…
Album opener Crack in the Wall is not a hybrid of two key tracks from Suzanne’s debut album but a delightful new track, with mandolin underpinned acoustic guitars, and a real live feel. It’s almost a statement opener – this is the sort of sound you would expect from a Suzanne Vega record in 2014. The surprises slowly start to seep through on the album’s second song, Fool’s Complaint, with a very early 70s sound (the backing vocals remind me of Transformer era Lou Reed).
Then along comes I Never Wear White – and this is the point where the album really shifts to new sonic territory. Built on a Stonesey riff, and a very in your face rock sound – just raw guitar, bass (from Levin) and drums (guitar/bass/drums – the killer formula). This is unlike anything else in the Vega back catalogue. Not a keyboard or acoustic guitar in earshot on this track.
“My colour is black, black, black…”
Portrait of the Knight of Wands is my favourite song on the album. Delicate layered guitar and discordant keyboards provide the palette for this moving tale. A subtle reverb on the lead vocal and a wide mix give this song space to breathe.
“His mission, the transmission of technology”
Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain features a 50 Cent sample, the sampled becoming the sampler! A shifting arrangement throws in some Zeppelinesque, arabic-sounding string parts, and a very unique vocal phrasing. This track cries out to be a single.
Jacob and the Angel really benefits from the Gerry Leonard production, with a guitar riff bubbling under the song that Mr Bowie would be proud of. Hand-claps provide the nagging beat, as the song slowly builds as it progresses.
The musically nostalgic Silver Bridge (which reminds me a little of the late 70s new wave of The Cars mixed with Springsteen’s sublime I’m on Fire) is another standout track that reveals hidden textures on repeated listening.
Song of the Stoic is a powerhouse of a song, and for me, the album’s centrepiece. Referencing the production experimentation of 99.9F° (my favourite Suzanne Vega album), the early instrumentation sounds like 19th Century, Deadwood era America, with rustic guitar and percussion that evokes the clanking of early industrial machinery. An intensely moving vocal line and cinematic arrangement make this one of the best songs Suzanne has ever recorded. I’m never going to grow tired of listening to this track.
Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2 has a wonderful dirty Velvet Underground sounding guitar line, and a very percussive backbeat. The album finishes with the optimistic Horizon (There Is a Road), offsetting the darkness of some of the albums preceding tracks.
Releasing a folk sounding record would have been a safe and unimaginative option but thankfully, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a million miles away from being safe, and should prove to be a career highlight for Suzanne Vega fans.
Visit the Suzanne Vega website
Buy Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles on Amazon UK
Buy Tried & True: The Best Of Suzanne Vega on Amazon UK
Buy 99.9 F° on Amazon UK