The live experience at home
With such a long and storied career starting from her first releases in 1985, Suzanne Vega draws from her discography to create An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, a live album composed of some of Vega’s most notable songs that have to do with the Big Apple itself. It’s no secret that New York City is important to Vega, and that really shines through on this album. But what stands out even more than that is Vega’s aptitude for weaving narratives, using her folk-inspired style to make each song a complete story in and of itself.
Releasing a live album right now is a smart move. With a lot of concerts being canceled or at the very least restricted, albums like this one are one way to get a part of the live experience. And while many will probably say that there’s no substitute for watching a show live, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories does a commendable job of hitting some of the high notes. There are several interludes from Vega where she introduces the next song and gives a little bit of its background. These are usually very short and they’re casual, not intrusive, and they help the album flow a bit better. However, there are definitely some aspects of a live performance that don’t translate over. There’s no mystery as to whether Vega will do an encore when she says “this next one will be the last” and there are four tracks after it.
The songs themselves are some of the best of the best of Vega’s work, being pulled from a large span of time. From 1985’s “Marlene on the Wall,” which opens the performance, to 2012’s “Ludlow Street” and to 2016’s “New York is My Destination,” almost the entirety of Vega’s career is represented here. Each song’s story draws the listener in, creating a personable and intimate atmosphere that’s boosted by the well-produced audio and non-intrusive audience noises. Standouts include “Frank and Ava,” which follows a tumultuous couple on 59th Street, “Freeze Tag,” a somber tale of childhood and love and its end, and the aforementioned “New York is My Destination.” This last one is notable because Vega initially wrote it for a play about Carson McCullers to embody her hopes and aspirations and ideas about New York City, and here on this album it serves as roughly the same thing – the idealized version of the city that so many dream of.
But like New York City, this album is incredibly multifaceted. It shows the city’s sides while showing Vega’s own multitude of talented approaches to songs. “Ludlow Street” in particular stands out as opening with a darker, captivating sound that blends with Vega’s dynamic voice. During the chorus, the song shifts into a more hopeful tone as the titular location is brought up as a kind of refuge. Vega uses not just her voice and words but also her instrumentals to paint this picture, to draw out the emotions she intends to convey.
A similar darker tone shines through on “Some Journey,” although this track is as a whole more sorrowful and reflective than in the moment like “Ludlow Street.” However, “Some Journey” builds on its opening well, adding in musical flourishes and instruments to keep the flow. This aspect combines with the lyrics to portray Vega getting lost in fantasies of what could have been, drifting into her own thoughts and away from the reality of the situation until the built-up music falls away and Vega’s vocals stand out stark against spartan chords as her actual experience dawns. A thrumming lower riff starts to kick in as she regains her determination, and hope breaks through the clouds in a fascinating instrumental section. And at the very end, everything stops dead and lands on one final resolution, a spelled-out chord that finishes off the piece with lingering admiration.
This album successfully encapsulates the aspects that led to Vega’s longevity in the industry, and brings a bit of the concert experience to the home in the process.