In 2011, Suzanne Vega and co-writer Duncan Sheik premiered their first play, Carson McCullers Talks About Love, a combination of monologues and music about the life of McCullers, Georgia-born Southern Gothic writer and a major influence on Vega, perhaps best known for her 1940s novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye and the 1951 novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, not to mention her personal life, she married, divorced and remarried the equally bisexual Reeves McCullers, both had affairs and in 1953 Reeves committed suicide, failing to persuade his wife to do so too.
The production was nominated for Outstanding Music in a Play for the 57th annual Drama Desk awards, and now, four years later, the material finds its way into an album. As on stage, the songs concern two moments that bookended McCullers’ career, the first in 1941 following the publication of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and her subsequent rise to literary fame and the second shortly before her death as she reflects back on her life.
With Vega just handling the vocals, Gerry Leonard provides guitar, mandolin, ukulele and vibes with Jason Hart on piano, Bryon Isaacs on upright bass and Yuvall Lyon behind the drums, while Sheik variously sings back-up and plays percussion, harmonium and Hammond bass pedals on various tracks.
The show opened with Iron Butterfly, a song Vega wrote way back when she first discovered McCullers, but here it’s context (“Fallen dear, that’s what they call me. But I’m an iron butterfly”) has been subsumed into a new song, the sultry sung jazzy Carson’s Blues co-penned with Michael Jerry Stevens and featuring piano, accordion, trombone, and banjo. Moving on, there’s a sprightly samba shuffle to the ambition-themed New York Is My Destination (“New York is meant for grander things, just like me”) with David Rothenberg on clarinet.
Ambivalence (“How I love you. How I loathe you”) and booze swim together on the drunken piano rolling cabaret-styled speak-sing Instant Of The Hour After, taken directly from McCullers’ story of two alcoholic lovers who wind up having an argument.
Then, Leonard’s guitar introduces a choppy folksy tone for the melodically poppy We Of Me (the phrase coming from McCullers’s 1946 novel, The Member of the Wedding), its identity theme recalling the fact that McCullers quit the racist South to live in New York, readily chiming with Vega’s own feelings of not belonging following the discovery at a young age that she had a different father to her siblings when she sings how “I and the world are always separate.”
Annemarie is a waltzing baroque piano ballad that touches on Carson’s sexuality as she confesses being entranced by the song’s protagonist, writer, journalist, and photographer Annemarie Renee Schwarzenbach, a morphine addict socialite she met during her first marriage (“If you could want me, I’d be no man’s wife”). However, the musical tone takes a darker hue for the furtively sung 12 Mortal Men, a spooked, swampy blues with hollow percussion, the ’12’ referencing the men on the chain gang in the epilogue to The Ballad of the Sad Café, highlighting its themes of isolation and loneliness.
After the dark, there’s some welcome playful lightness, a New Orleans jazz flavour courtesy of Roswell Rudd’s trombone carrying along Harper Lee, the verses seeing the competitive Carson namechecking literary icons (Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, Williams, etc) and remarking how much better she is (for the most part using actual quotes from her autobiography, reserving her sharpest claws for Lee (“she only wrote one book. I’ve written three”), complaining that she’s “poaching on my literary preserves” and how (in a line by Sheik) she’d “like to kill more than just that mocking bird.”
The last act begins with Lover, Beloved, Hart providing sparse piano against which itchy percussion shuffles, the line about the man across the Styx a reference to her husband’s suicide, giving way to the second of the new Stevens-co-penned numbers, the jazzy swing The Ballad of Miss Amelia, putting a spin on the narrative from The Ballad of the Sad Café in a reworking of the dynamic between Miss Amelia Evans, her abusive no-good husband Marvin Macy and the hunchbacked stranger.
The album bids farewell with Carson’s Last Supper, a tinkling piano sway-along, coloured with accordion and background vocals by The Garrison Gang, that celebrates a life lived with all its pains and gains, sorrows and bliss, ending on the chorus line and coda that pithily sums up McCullers’ intent and experience “I love the world,. Sometimes it loves me. The love of my life is humanity.”
Regardless of the origin and its literary references, the album slips very comfortably into Vega’s other work and, if it prompts listeners to dig out one of McCullers’ books, then all the more power to it too.
Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers is Out Now.