Sunday, July 19, 2015

Suzanne Vega - Days of Open Hand (1990)

(This is the third of a series of record reviews called "Shades of Mediocrity," a look at weak [but not necessarily bad] albums from esteemed artists.)
The open hand must have been for covering your mouth while listening to this album.
Suzanne Vega broke through commercially in 1987 with Solitude Standing, an LP that improved on the promise of her 1985 self-titled debut, and her incisive and contemporary portraits of urban life and her sharp, fresh, folk-based light rock music made her the favorite eighties pop performer of everyone who hated eighties pop.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but she made many of us believe in popular music again.  Even Vega herself acknowledged this; she told one interviewer that she got the impression that her fans were saying, "She's going to lead us into a revolution!"  But Vega wasn't interested in leading the charge, and the late-eighties revolt (which included Tracy Chapman, Shawn Colvin, and a couple of alternative bands) against MTV synth-pop soon fizzled out like the Grito de Lares.  Unfortunately, it seemed, so had Vega.
Days of Open Hand, released in 1990, has been defended by some Vega fans as a masterpiece, but I don't hear it myself.  I'm too busy hearing myself yawn.  Its dry, efficient production gets more tiresome as it progresses, with Vega's vocals rarely getting above a whisper and the mix of acoustic guitars, bass and metal percussion being somewhat pat and no more than functional and competent.
Days of Open Hand starts out with a lot of promise, opening with the sweet and sweetly ironic "Tired of Sleeping," whose narrator is a little girl eager to get out of bed and fill her new day with activity.  Unfortunately, and even more ironically, the pace starts to slow with the second track, the clich├ęd anti-war tune "Men in a War," which sounds rather stale, and the record just gets duller from there.  Songs like "Rusted Pipe" and "Big Space" present solitary, introspective characters like the ones on Vega's previous two albums, with nothing new to say about such people, and the record's single, "Book of Dreams," is just lightweight adult/contemporary music supporting implausibly symbolic lyrics.  Also, her efforts to derive meaning out of every last word in the songs fall flat; in "Those Whole Girls (Run in Grace)," she painstakingly (and painfully) emphasizes each syllable.  By the time you've reached the ninth track, the boring "Predictions" (more soothing than soothsaying), you're ready more for a nap than for activity.
There really isn't anything on Days of Open Hand that's flat-out terrible, but it just doesn't hold your interest like Vega's first two LPs do.  Everything here is well-crafted and professionally executed, but it's not very engaging.  The most musically interesting song, "Fifty-Fifty Chance," is about an attempted suicide, with a stand-alone string section arranged by Philip Glass.  Glass is a compelling minimalist, but his arrangement can't compensate for Vega's limited insight on a topic that's not very pleasant to contemplate to begin with. 
The commercial breakthrough of hip-hop at the time this album was released made it clear that the late-eighties alt-folk-rock revolution, if there ever was one, was over, while Days of Open Hand seemed to suggest that Suzanne Vega's career was also at an end. It wasn't - some of her most interesting work was still ahead of her - but the rush to anoint her as the leader of a musical revolution she didn't want to command, at a time when she was still trying to establish herself, just serves to remind us what Bob Dylan, the founding father of folk-rock, once said: "Don't follow leaders."  Because following the leader is not how music history is made.  

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