"My name is Luka, I live on the second floor." Thus begins New York pop-folk songwriter Suzanne Vega's disquieting story of a city kid's attempt to deal with a volatile (and seemingly violent) home situation. Vega focuses not on the details of the kid's plight but on his awkwardness. She sketches his brave front—and the way it barely hides his fear, his sense of being overwhelmed.
The song, one of several radio hits on Solitude Standing, sparked nationwide discussion about the domestic abuse of children. One reason it touched a nerve is its undeniable catchiness. Vega goes for exuberant refrains cushioned by cooing background vocals—if there ever was an effective counterbalance to a bleak and disturbing scene, this runaway musical optimism is it.
"Luka" is but one highlight of the entrancing Solitude Standing, the follow-up to Vega's critically lauded 1985 debut. Where her first collection centered on meditative acoustic guitar and lots of breathless words, this one, made with the help of downtown New York musicians, presents Vega using colors and shades and shadowy orchestrations. The album ranges from pure pop to almost ambient meditations, and every track resonates differently. The title tune alternates between a steady rock pulse and ethereal free-falling passages that seem borne from a daydream. "Calypso" is a gorgeously liquid homage to undersea explorers, while "Ironbound/Fancy Poultry" floats effortlessly between 3/4 and 4/4 time to sketch a Newark street scene.
Solitude Standing yielded another improbable hit—the cinema-verité "Tom's Diner," which Vega sings a cappella. This song, which was remixed by the British producers DNA first without her permission then with her blessing, became a massive club hit the following year. It has now been redone over thirty different ways, by Destiny's Child, Lil' Kim, and others. When audio engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was developing the MP3 audio format for computers, he used the original "Tom's Diner" as a test, explaining that if he could get the program to translate Vega's warm voice, it could translate anything.
Genre: Folk, Pop
Released: 1987, A&M
Key Tracks: "Solitude Standing," "Ironbound/Fancy Poultry," "Calypso."
Catalog Choice: Suzanne Vega
Next Stop: Laura Veirs: Year of Meteors
After That: Maria Muldaur: Maria Muldaur
Book Pages: 827–828