Just because we haven't heard from Suzanne Vega in a while doesn't mean she hasn't been busy. Six years, a lifetime in pop, have passed since the pop-folk singer-songwriter released her last album, 2001's overlooked Songs in Red and Gray. She's back with a new album - Beauty & Crime, her debut for Blue Note Records released last week - and it is well worth the wait. Surely you remember Vega, the wispy woman who karate-kicked the door open for the crop of folky pop female singer-songwriters who rose to fame in the late '80s and early '90s. (Think Tracy Chapman, Edie Brickell and Sinead O'Connor.)
I can't believe 20 years have flown by since "Luka," Vega's 1987 smash signature tune, ascended the pop charts. I clearly remember being a daydreaming 10-year-old, singing along to that song when it came on the radio seemingly every other hour: My name is Luka/I live on the second floor/I live upstairs from you/Yes, I think you've seen me before. It was years later that I realized the tune was a haunting look at child abuse.
That same power to explore heavy themes with a journalist's eye and a poet's heart still invigorates Vega's work. Hands down, Beauty & Crime is a contender for one of the most accomplished and finely wrought albums of 2007.
But what has taken so long for Vega to deliver it?
"I promoted my last record for about two years," says the artist, who called me last week from her car in New York. "I changed managers, which took about a year. I toured, wrote pieces for The New York Times, raised my daughter. And I got married."
Vega also hosted a public-radio series called American Mavericks and, in 2003, compiled and released an anthology. In between all the activities, the 47-year-old artist managed to write songs here and there. But when she decided to make a new album, Vega had to push the muse.
"The album is half inspiration and half hard work," she says. "For three years, I was writing a song a year, and I wasn't happy with that. At that rate, it would have taken 12 years to complete an album. I had to push myself. I was writing some of the songs in the studio."
For the thematic backdrop of Beauty & Crime, Vega uses New York and some of the city's illustrious characters past and present.
"Frank & Ava" explores the legendary romance between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, while "Edith Wharton's Figurines" speaks from the perspective of the author's characters about modern life in New York.
But the album isn't all poetic studies of the city's figures. Vega also delves into her personal life in New York: "Bound" addresses her recent marriage to poet and lawyer Paul Mills; "As You Are Now" is an open-hearted letter to her daughter, Ruby Froom; and "Ludlow Street" is a moving tribute to Vega's brother, Tim, who died in 2002.
"It was hard to find a title for the album," the singer says. "I didn't want to call it New York is a Woman (a song on the album and one of its highlights), because that would have been too obvious. Beauty & Crime describes the aesthetics of the album - the balance of beautiful and not-so-beautiful elements. ... Lyrically, there's a lot of beauty addressed but also some minor criminal elements."
Working with producer Jimmy Hogarth, Vega enlivens her songs with arrangements that colorfully and subtly meld organic and electronic instrumentation - sweeping strings and Vega's nimble acoustic guitar underpinned by distorted, programmed elements.
"I felt I had more confidence this time to try different things with the music," the artist says. "I wanted to hear beautiful, classic strings with modern touches, too. I started to work on this record when I had no label deal, so there was some freedom there."
Beauty & Crime sounds like the work of an assured, evolved artist. That's evident in the sexy, noir-style cover art, featuring Vega in a stylish black trench coat and saucy hat.
"I wanted that hard-boiled, crime-ridden woman," she says of the picture. "I wanted to depict that dame you couldn't take your eyes off of."
The woman whose songs haunt you years later.