The four volumes in Suzanne Vega's Close-Up series revisited her catalog thematically with stripped-down charts. It appealed to her base of fans who patiently waited seven years for new material. The ten songs on Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles fits that bill. The set was produced by longtime associate and co-writer Gerry Leonard, and played by a weighty studio cast. The album isn't so much a change of musical direction as it is a classy revisioning of Vega's trademark sound. These tracks address many of humanity's big themes through Vega's canny, detailed gaze, sometimes with the added weight of the metaphorical wisdom from the tarot. "Crack in the Wall" is a Buddhist reflection on awareness with the songwriter's signature tight lines and vivid physical descriptions. Its martial snare and painterly electric guitars are countered by Larry Campbell's mandolin and banjo. "I Never Wear White" is a punchy rocker with Leonard's big fuzzy guitars up front, a whomping bassline by Tony Levin, and the loud drums of Jay Bellerose. Its lyric reveals Vega has lost none of her wry sense of humor. "Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain" samples 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" in an allegorical tale about caution, with Pandora as one of its muses. "Song of the Stoic" updates "Luka," in a sense. Written from a drifting, hardworking male's point of view, it uncovers the emotional cost that physical abuse can take on an adult life. Its musical vehicle is angular rockist Americana, with the Smichov Chamber Orchestra Prague providing windswept accompaniment, making the lyric's emotional impression indelible. "Laying on of Hands/Stoic 2" discusses the cost of repression -- physical and psychological -- with Mother Teresa and Epictetus its referent examples. The rumbling bassline and slippery backbeat feeds Vega's sung cadences as a psych-tinged six-string fills lines and codas; both feature the powerful backing vocals of Catherine Russell. Not everything here works, though. "Portrait of the Knight of Wands," despite its attractive melody, is marred by a very clunky refrain, and "Jacob and the Angel" feels more like a demo than a finished track. Closer "Horizon (There Is a Road)" is dedicated to Václav Havel's memory. It's a gentle acoustic rocker with an elegant trumpet solo in the bridge. It's the one place here where Vega's trademark detachment doesn't reign. Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a welcome return by an artist who has remained stubbornly true to herself and only records when she has something new to say.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek