Beauty & Crime Label: Blue Note
Precious few people heard Suzanne Vega’s last album, 2001’s Songs in Red and Gray, which is a shame because it is, no joke, one of the best breakup albums ever made. Fresh off her divorce from uber-producer Mitchell Froom, Songs in Red and Gray ached like nothing the normally detached Vega had ever done. Drugs may work for some, but nothing inspires genius quite like a broken heart.
Vega’s new album, Beauty & Crime, is a fitting follow-up to Songs in Red and Gray, in that Vega acknowledges the heaviness of her last album but is clearly feeling much better, thank you. She still has a few last words for Froom, but Beauty & Crime is by and large a family affair, featuring songs about her daughter Ruby, her late brother Tim, her new husband, and the city of New York, who apparently is a woman.
Fans of Red and Gray will want to jump straight to “Bound,” which is about as world-weary a love song as you’re likely to find. She seems shocked that new hubby Paul Mills would want her, admitting, “I am asking you, asking you if you might still want me?” She rather cheekily follows “Bound” with, you guessed it, “Unbound,” which is clearly aimed at Froom. The lyric is pretty basic for a Vega song, but good luck getting the melody out of your head. “New York is a Woman” is a horn-kissed ballad about how the city, to paraphrase a Beatles song, flows within you and without you. “New York is a woman, she’ll make you cry / And to her, you’re just another guy,” Vega sings. That line stings more than the songs on the album that are actually about people.
The album’s can’t-miss moment is “Frank & Ava,” which may be about Sinatra and Gardner but will aptly describe your last failed relationship. Musically akin to Red and Gray track “It Makes Me Wonder,” Vega tells a tale of white-hot passion and tumultuous instability, warning that “it’s not enough to be in love.” It should surprise no one that by song’s end, she’s not singing about Frank and Ava but singing at Froom. If Froom is smart, he’ll take the jab the way Jules Shear handled the songs Aimee Mann wrote about him: “Hey, if they’re good songs, she can write about me all she wants.”And Beauty & Crime, like nearly everything else in Vega’s catalog, is indeed filled with good, good songs. She has a tendency to get overly precious and ornate, but that is a price worth paying when you’re dealing with one of the last songwriters that actually knows what she’s doing. Now if we could just get her to make an album more than once every half-decade.