As Suzanne Vega and her husband listened to Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times” disc recently, her 13-year-old daughter popped her head into the living room. She wondered why she’d been hearing the same voice for half an hour.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Listening to an album. A quaint concept for the iPod Generation, but one worth revisiting — if only for mom’s sake.
That’s because Vega has an album well worth listening to. Her new “Beauty & Crime” is the deepest, most satisfying album in a career that’s stretched 20 years since “Luka” made child abuse an unusual topic for a Top 40 hit. The disc has a cosmopolitan flair, with Vega’s hometown New York City a lead character.
The tone is struck through “New York is a Woman,” which views the city’s vast possibilities through the lovestruck eyes of a new man in town. Vega walked city streets for weeks thinking before coming up with the perfect cautionary line for the outsider. “To her,” she sings, “you’re just another guy.”
The four songs that bookend “Beauty & Crime” are set in New York before and after the 2001 terrorist attacks. “Ludlow Street” is about the neighborhood Vega’s late brother Tim loved. “Zephyr & I” refers to a well-known graffiti artist who grew up with Tim in the 1970s on the far Upper West Side.
A ground zero rescue worker is the central character of “Angel’s Doorway.” “Anniversary,” written a year after the attacks, talks of changes in the lives of survivors who are urged now to “watch for daily braveries” and “notice newfound courtesies.”
Challenged to write about 9/11As a musician, Vega felt out of sorts after the attacks, having just released a deeply personal album at a time something much bigger was affecting everyone in the city. She was challenged by friends to write about the event. One effort, “It Hit Home,” didn’t make the new album.
“For some people, it’s like, ‘Why now?’ ” Vega said over lunch at a Greek restaurant. “I said, ‘I’m very slow.’ I’m happy it’s six years and not seven or eight. If I had finished all the songs I was working on it would have been even longer.”
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Her daughter has doubled in age since mom last put out new music, and is mature enough to sing backup onstage.
Yet time adds perspective to the songs she includes.
“I was hoping it would be entertaining,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be just like a newspaper account. I wanted it there as a backdrop but not to have that apocalyptic tone.”
When Vega began writing for “Beauty & Crime,” the music began coming out as folk songs — hardly unusual for someone who stands in front of a microphone with an acoustic guitar. But she wanted a bolder, edgier sound. She wanted music that fit the breadth of the city.
To the extent she succeeds, the disc recalls the experimentation of her “99.9F” album, with strong pop hooks. The wisdom of that move is that Vega’s limited voice can become boring without the extra coloring.
Many career distinctions
During her recording hiatus, Vega changed management and signed with Blue Note, a label that diversified beyond jazz to spectacular effect with Norah Jones. Vega boasts a fascinating list of career distinctions: first artist on the main stage of Lilith Fair; first to perform live in avatar form; her voice used as a model for the invention of the MP3; and, undoubtedly, the only writer to have a song (“Tom’s Diner”) remixed by Will Smith, R.E.M. and Tupac.
Two songs on her new disc stand out as the most personal.
With “As You Are Now,” written when her daughter Ruby was 9, Vega attempts in song to do what many parents try in vain with cameras: bottle a precious moment in time with a rapidly growing child.
She got in trouble at home with her lyric about keeping all of Ruby’s teeth “in a cardboard box through the ticking and the tocks.”
“She said, ‘You have my teeth? You said the tooth fairy had my teeth!”’ Vega recalled.
“Bound,” where Vega sings about “asking you if you might still want me,” could be read as addressing an audience that hasn’t heard new music from her since 2001.
To Vega, the meaning is much more profound.
Vega, who is divorced from Ruby’s dad (music producer Mitchell Froom), had heard little in two decades from Paul Mills, a former boyfriend. One time Mills wrote, but the letter was mixed up in fan mail and he was disappointed to get no response.
Mills was a street poet when he and Vega dated in the early 1980s. He wanted to marry her. She kept him at arm’s length. The relationship ended.
He contacted Vega again in late 2005, asking how she was doing. Figuring he might be prodding to see if she were single, Vega still kept him at arm’s length. She sent him a copy of the most personally vague new song she had written recently: “Unbound,” a techno song about a plant that appears on “Beauty & Crime.”
He persisted. They had several e-mail and phone conversations and, finally, decided to meet one December day. They became engaged on Christmas and were married in February.
Mills, who had become a lawyer, kept a card in which Vega had written that she was bound to him forever. Maybe it wasn’t legally binding, but Vega found it was personally. She uses it as the climax to her love song: “When I said I am bound to you forever, here’s what I meant,” she sings, “I am bound to you forever.”
She also says, with a laugh, that it puts things in perspective for fans upset they hadn’t heard from her lately.
“Paul had to wait 23 years for me to say yes,” she said. “Six years is like nothing.”