I like third albums. They’ve got a certain revelatory character about them. They’re not always the best records of an artist’s career (although they often are), but from them you can begin to see the outline of that career — a template for the triumphs yet to come, or the harbinger of the inevitable downfall. Or both. Born To Run is a third album. So is London Calling. If an artist makes it to a third record (and many don’t), chances are they’re in this for the long haul. Paris 1919. War. Making Movies. Third albums are where a band officially enters a mid-career phase. It’s where all the pieces come together. Fear of Music. The Times They Are A-Changin’. Third albums are a sorting mechanism; from them, you know who’s got it in them to deliver on the potential of the early records. Every Picture Tells A Story. Dirty Mind. From here you can read the shape of things to come.
Mostly, I like third albums because of they tend to reveal unexpected facets of songwriters. They say you’ve got 25 years to write your first album and six months to write your second, but that’s not exactly true. Second albums will always boast a few new-minted songs, yes, but because of those very time pressures they’re often a dumping ground for older material that didn’t make the cut for the first record.
That was certainly the case for Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing, her breakthrough second album, which — along with the hits — was padded out with tunes dating back to Vega’s teenage years. Songs like “Gypsy” had a certain naïve charm, but alongside the darker, more emotionally complex songs like “Luka” and the title track, they were pretty weak tea. Vega seemed like the real deal — accomplished, but with potential still to burn — and I was eager to hear how she was going to grow. In 1990, with Days of Open Hand, I got my answer.
What was immediately apparent was that, after cutting her teeth as a solo singer-guitarist, Vega was now firmly ensconced in the role of frontwoman. She was no longer a lone performer saddled with a backing group — she was a bandleader. Listening to electric-guitar filigree and kinetic bass work on the kickoff single “Book Of Dreams,” it was obvious that the song had been written with a full band in mind. (And obvious, too, that the band in mind was XTC, but still.)
The band was so integral to the compositional process that keyboardist Anton Sanko — Vega’s arranger and musical director, as well as her boyfriend at the time — is listed as co-composer on roughly half the songs on Days. Sanko’s influence has mixed results. He spreads an awful lot of pixie dust over the songs, and some of his synth tones sound embarrassingly dated, twenty years on. But he’s also got a good ear for pan-global, world-music sounds that prove an excellent fit for Vega’s lyrical themes and explorations of identity; she’d been raised by a Puerto Rican stepfather to have a strong sense of Latino consciousness, not learning until her late teens that she was entirely of Anglo-European ancestry, and had long been a follower of Mahayana Buddhism.
Sanko mixes adult-contemporary sounds (Marc Shulman’s bright, clean-toned Strat and Mike Visceglia’s energetic bass) with judicious use of ethnic instruments like the tiple and ney flute, often building his arrangements around Michael Blair’s junkyard percussion. The approach hits more than it misses. The cod-reggae choruses of “Rusted Pipe” are a non-starter, but cuts like “Pilgrimage” and the eerie “Institution Green” simmer along on layers of sequencers and Blair’s odd bangs and rattles.
Lyrically, Days of Open Hand manages the neat trick of wringing emotional impact from cool, unaffected language. There’s nothing as overtly heart-rending as “Luka,” with its portrait of an abused boy; but in “Those Whole Girls (Run In Grace)” (download), Vega creates a situation just as affecting, but ups the ante in complexity. A sickly child’s litany of envy and bitterness towards her able-bodied peers is spelled out — or rather implied — in as few words as possible; this child has barely the breath to make her testimony, each syllable a terrible labor backgrounded by the doomy wheeze of the synthesizers. The guitar is a crippled plod, gradually lightening and accelerating as the song moves towards its ambiguous conclusion, as the voice begins to echo and fade and the mood turns almost exalted.
Even better is “Room Off The Street” (download), which sounds like an Isabel Allende novel condensed to three minutes. A tiny handful of concrete images (a tight red dress, a ceiling fan, a poster on a wall) sketch a character, a relationship, a society, a political climate, a history — all of it fraught with danger and tragedy. The music, too, is tantalizingly nonspecific, with vague Latin and Middle Eastern elements that serve to deepen the feel of the piece precisely by their imprecision. You can’t pin it down; it could be anywhere — most likely, could be any frontier, any hemisphere — and so it’s everywhere.
The album’s crowning moment of doing less with more, though, comes with “Predictions.” (download) Over a simple, repeating dropped-D guitar figure, Vega chants a lyric that’s simply a list of various techniques of divination — numerology, physiognomy, hydromancy, chartomancy — with the occasional refrain “Let’s tell the future / Let’s see how it’s been done.” The arrangement pulses and hums; exotic fragments of countermelody emerge from the swirl and then recede. The effect is hypnotic, but there’s a worrisome, unspoken question at its heart: why is this narrator so desperate to know the future that she will take such elaborate means?
“Predictions” does not mention the method of using third albums to tell the future — but then, Days of Open Hand is an album all about the things that go unsaid. Shortly after the album and subsequent tour, Suzanne Vega broke up with both Anton Sanko and her longtime band — having taken both relationships, one feels, to the end of their usefulness — and fell into a collaboration and subsequent marriage with pop experimentalist Mitchell Froom. That marriage ultimately wouldn’t last, either. You could have predicted that, perhaps, from the range and restlessness of Days. In the last twenty years, Vega has released only four albums, falling silent for long periods, keeping her own counsel before emerging again to offer a few carefully-chosen words, heavy with meaning, wise and strange. Her career is a perpetual work in progress; there has been no grand capping statement, no last word, no tombstone quote, just a string of moments, sometimes moving, sometimes cryptic, ultimately unresolved. Tell the future? Listen to the record: it’s all there.