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THE RECORD RACK

* * * * Great Balls of Fire , * * * Good Vibrations , * * Maybe Baby , * Running on Empty : ZEN OVER ZIP IN VEGA'S 'SOLITUDE'

May 03, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

* * * 1/2 "SOLITUDE STANDING." Suzanne Vega. A&M.

Solitude, indeed. Suzanne Vega's absorbing second album is full of characters whose sharp self-awareness is shaped by their isolation.

She's even written a ballad from the point of view of one of the loneliest of all mythical characters: Calypso, the companionless, love-struck sea nymph who has kept the mortal hero Odysseus on her remote island for seven years, but has finally decided to let him go and watches him sail back to civilization. Now there's a withdrawn personality.

Most of Vega's songs are much less poignant than that, though, because it's the heightened consciousness of being alone-- not loneliness itself--that seems to really interest her. She approaches her surroundings with that detached Buddhist's calm that can sometimes be unnerving, suggesting but rarely allowing emotion.

The songs range from obscure, almost mystical verse ("Wooden Horse") to blunt slices of life ("Tom's Diner," about a typical meal at the local hole-in-the-wall, and "Luka," about a child-abuse victim), but the characters are chiefly watchers, waiters, observers, analyzers.

The lyrics' meditative leanings are matched by the music, which combines folk and light rock with synthesizer-filled atmospherics. Rest assured, however, that even though this music may be reminiscent of New Age stylings, it will nonetheless appeal to those who still have the occasional squiggly lines on their brain-wave charts.

Because for someone who professes such little faith in words--in the album's best song, "Language," she declares, "I won't use words again / They don't mean what I meant"--Vega does have a nice way with them.

Her voice, too, unruffled and calm as it is, is more a cutting instrument than the kind of settling, sleepy presence that would induce easy listening. From the a cappella opener, "Tom's Diner," onward, the vocals are mixed way up front, right in your ear.

It's true that Vega rarely stretches herself vocally, and it's also true that she could still stand to rock out a bit, musically and/or emotionally--a little less Zen and a little more zip. No sophomore slump, though, "Solitude Standing" makes good--or better--on the promise of her debut, with Vega's deadpan ability to make waves without rocking the boat ever-intriguing. On the softer side of the spectrum right now, she stands pretty much alone.

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