Beauty & Crime may be the album that connects with an audience again. Informed by Vega’s post-9/11 New York, it’s a disarming and moving jewel box of a record. At only 34 minutes long (six of the eleven songs are under three minutes), it moves so nimbly through its lyrical and musical ideas that you don’t quite notice its brevity. Produced by Jimmy Hogarth, the 31-year-old Scot who made KT Tunstall’s 2006 debut shimmer, Beauty & Crime was recorded in London with a full orchestra. (Tunstall sings backup on two songs.) Underneath all of those lush, gorgeous strings, Hogarth then layered the electronic beats, delays, fades, and distortions that lend the album its freshness and vitality.
Vega’s voice—once described as Joni Mitchell without the jazz—has become more knowing, more coolly assertive, with age. When she sings “Pornographer’s Dream,” a bossa nova, she pushes herself outside of her natural key, and the effect is hypnotic. On “Zephyr & I,” a song about Vega and a graffiti-artist friend of her brother’s hanging out on West End Avenue as they reminisce about the seventies, Vega’s voice goes so high and light that it seems to dissolve into pure effervescence behind the accompaniment of the lo-fi drums and guitar.
Through her depression, she clung to the idea of making this record—“a mosaic of little stories about New York based on things people had told me or things I had seen or felt or heard”—though without a record label or a manager it was “sort of a figment of my imagination.” Then one day on the street she bumped into another echt–New York musician, Philip Glass. “He said, ‘Oh, hi, Suzanne. How’s your work going?’ And I was like, ‘It’s not going anywhere, because I don’t have a record deal.’ And his face lit up and he said, ‘Oh, what an excellent situation to be in! Now you can really do what you want!’ ”
She hired an engineer to come to her apartment every day to teach her how to use the software GarageBand. Without anyone to tell her what she could or could not do, she sometimes just “amused” herself and her engineer. This looseness is reflected in the album, where she plays around with a few lighter themes (an ingenious song about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner; a pretty ballad about, improbably enough, Edith Wharton and plastic surgery) in addition to the somber ones.
But it’s when she writes about 9/11 that her music—and her sometimes maddeningly elliptical lyrics—becomes hauntingly beautiful. One song, “Ludlow Street,” is about her brother’s death and the street he lived on for many years, the place where Vega herself attended “two-day parties” in the eighties. (“Each morning after,” she sings, “painted in nicotine.”) “I remember picking him up on Ludlow Street at dawn and taking him down to Florida to rehab,” she says. “And the lyric is one of those things he said on the airplane when he was surrounded by all these women with their poodles: ‘I want to go back to Ludlow Street, where people are common and good.’ ”
Another, “Angel’s Doorway,” is about her cousin’s husband, a cop who was stationed at ground zero after the disaster and arrived home every night to leave his ash- and smoke-infested clothes—and the details of his day—just inside the door. But the most affecting song, titled simply “Anniversary,” Vega wrote the day of the first anniversary in 2002. “There was a weird wind blowing around that day,” she says. “It was whirlpooling all over New York, and it was very emotional.” When she wrote the song, she says, she “was not only marking what had happened to New York, but what had happened to my family, trying to find a way to say this while I was mourning. So I wrote that one song, and then I didn’t write anything for a while.”
Vega grew up in Spanish Harlem and then on 102nd and Broadway. She was actually born in Santa Monica, but her mother, a computer-systems analyst, and stepfather, a Puerto Rican writer, moved to Manhattan when she was 2. Having lived here ever since, in nearly every neighborhood, she is as qualified as anyone to make an album about New York City. “I feel like there is hardly a street in Manhattan that I have not walked down,” she says. “I know the cracks of it, the texture of it—it’s just such a part of my life.”
She mentions that she’s been catching some flak for her album’s title. “People say, ‘New York is not so full of crime anymore.’ ” She stares at me. “There will always be crime in New York.” I ask her how she feels about the new New York, though, with all the gentrification and hedge-fund money, and far less crime than during her youth. “Well, I keep hearing this has happened,” she says. “There are a lot of projects where I live, and there’s a big homeless problem pretty much from 96th all the way to 110th, especially if you walk on Broadway. I don’t think of New York as a homogenized place, but the city has a bad rap these days. You know, Joe Jackson has moved to Berlin. Apparently, it’s not dark enough for him anymore. I think it’s different if you’re raising a child.” She lets out a brief, dark chuckle. “New York is plenty edgy for me right now.”