Suzanne Vega was always more literate than most of her contemporaries, so a one-woman show about author Carson McCullers isn’t too big of a stretch for her writing. Five years after the play debuted, she collected some of the songs she wrote for it on Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers. Her main collaborator here is Duncan Sheik, who took his particular brand of sensitive pop to great success in this century with big-time musicals like Spring Awakening. Gratefully, there are no show-stopping diva moments on Lover, Beloved, playing instead to Vega’s already established strengths.
That said, the setting dictates that the music be something of a departure. “Carson’s Blues” is a jazzy number with accordion, trombone, and shades of Annie Ross. “New York Is My Destination” has a wonderful piano and clarinet arrangement, but dips every time she ends a verse with an affected “just like me!” (Lou Reed made a career of speaking during his songs; she shouldn’t.) “Instant Of The Hour After” would be familiar to those who picked up one of her Close-Up albums, and its drama is quite welcome here. Strikingly, it’s the most commercial-sounding tune that has the most eyebrow-raising lyrics, as “We Of Me” seems to suggest a romantic or familial triad, while the obsession inherent in “Annemarie” only makes that song that much more powerful.
The prominent banjo on “12 Mortal Men” reminds of recent Tom Waits, fitting for a lyric partially about a chain gang. A timely track considering that Go Set A Watchman had been unleashed only a year before, “Harper Lee” finds the author complaining about her more renowned contemporaries over the vaudeville stagger borrowed from the first track. The title track is another “standard” song, with a pretty melody and gentle nudging, that provides welcome space between the more elaborate settings. To wit: “The Ballad Of Miss Amelia” is something of a mis-fire, distilling one of McCullers’ novellas into a mostly-spoken showpiece complete with a saloon environment. “Carson’s Last Supper” gets back to better surroundings in something of a benediction.
While a little knowledge about the subject’s life and works will certainly illuminate some of the titles and lyrics, Lover, Beloved must stand on its own outside the context of a libretto, and luckily, it does. It’s best appreciated as an album, not shackled to the fate, good or bad, of what sells theater tickets.
Suzanne Vega Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers (2016)—3