"Cracking" by Suzanne Vega, 1985

Thursday, February 6, 2014

It's an odd little song. It's short at two and a half minutes, but feels much shorter, and Vega talks the lyrics like a poet, rather than sings them, and it's on her eponymous debut, which also has the minor hit "Marelene on the Wall" and the song that should be on my top-100 but for some reason isn't, "The Queen and the Soldier."

"Cracking" opens the LP, and it does it masterfully. Because it's mostly spoken instead of sung, and because it's so sparsely arranged, with almost no drums, and with a casual bass line and long-sustaining synth calls, "Cracking" brings the listener into the record carefully, like the lyrics say--walking on ice. And between each verse, Vega coos a lilting "ahh," until the last verse (there is no chorus), when the bass begins striking its fifths.

The listener has the impression that our narrator--the voice we'll listen to for the next 35 minutes--is afraid, tentative, and that mood pervades the whole album, with one major exception, which this song sets up: those lilting "ahh"'s, and that last verse, which Vega sings instead of speaks, bringing out the melody as if it had been there all the time if only she hadn't been so afraid. Throughout the LP, the melodies are either stark and jagged, or they are lilting and beautiful, and where one feels afraid, the other feels in love.

That's the theme of the song's lyrics, too, of course: finding the beauty after moving tentatively through the fear.

I could go on and on about this LP. It's one of the best ever recorded. The following track, taking its cue from "Cracking"'s ice themes, is called "Freeze Tag." That track snaps, "I will be Dietrich and you can be Dean," and is followed by that minor hit "Marlene [Dietrich] on the Wall."

Here's "Cracking" live: