Happy 25th Anniversary to Suzanne Vega’s fourth studio album 99.9F°, originally released September 8, 1992.
Blame it on “Tom's Diner,” the glorious din of 99.9F° that is.
The California born, New York City reared guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Suzanne Vega started off quietly, but intensely, in 1985 with her eponymous debut LP. Solitude Standing, home of the original version of “Tom's Diner,” followed in 1987 and Days of Open Hand in 1990. All three records reservedly combined pronounced guitar play with discreet keyboards and programming. So, it was something of a shock when DNA, a British production duo, borrowed “Tom's Diner” and put its coolly probing “slice of life” perspective over an insistent groove. After sussing out the business kinks between DNA and her label, A&M Records, Vega gave the green light for the single in the fall of 1990. With her lyrical poise and distinct vocal colliding with DNA's beat, fireworks erupted in the clubs, on the radio and on the charts.
Vega, whose biggest hit was “Luka” in 1987, found herself handling this unexpected smash in stride. She began to ponder how she could interpolate the energy of this exchange between herself and DNA into her own artistic matrix. Vega’s creative inquisitiveness led her to intersect with musician and producer Mitchell Froom. Froom was excited with Vega's avidity and agreed to produce her fourth album.
Appropriately titled, 99.9F° simmers in its experimentation. The album nearly defies its genre classifications of alternative pop and contemporary rock altogether. The compositions of the record are rich and funky, but its melodies aren't undercut by the urgency of the album's rhythms. More importantly, the LP retains a discernible fearlessness in its aural attitude that ensured that no snarky critic or lazy fan could level accusations of trend-hopping post-“Tom's Diner.” The live instrumentation on 99.9F° is smart and slinky, paired with a range of kaleidoscopic loops and samples, such as the motorized whir-click of “Blood Makes Noise” or the carnivalesque “Fat Man & Dancing Girl.”
Vega's singing falls between graceful disinterest and curious examination, providing the charge for her musical prose. Her retelling of the Biblical tale of David and Goliath as “Rock in This Pocket (Song of David)” resets the story as an accessible allegory for the human experience. Much of the songwriting accomplishes this and nowhere is this more apparent than on the character studies of the gothic pop of “In Liverpool” and the coiling, jazz sizzle of the title track. In these songs, and others on 99.9F°, Vega sometimes is an active participant in the song scenarios or sometimes not at all. When it’s the former, she offers sophisticated tension on “If You Were In My Movie,” not your typical love song, but no less romantic.
Placed in the middle and at the end of the LP, “Blood Sings” and “Song of Sand” return Vega to communing exclusively with her acoustic guitar, but they aren't set amongst the other album tracks as a concession to those awaiting a “return to form.” Instead, they're present because the stated acoustic sound appealed to Vega, like everything at play on 99.9F°.
Major commercial gains weren't achieved in the United States (US Billboard 200 #86), but the United Kingdom showed their good taste by rewarding the LP with modest returns (UK Official Albums Chart #20) when the album dropped in September 1992. 99.9F° yielded four singles after the album's release in late 1992 until 1993: “99.9F°,” “Blood Makes Noise,” “In Liverpool,” “When Heroes Go Down.” All the singles landed within the Top 60 of charts in England, Canada, New Zealand and America. Of the four, two singles found their way in the States on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart (“99.9F°,” #13; “Blood Makes Noise,” #1).
Suzanne Vega kept at recording and touring in the 25 years since her fourth record, but among her nine original studio projects released to date, the joyful noise of 99.9F° has remained singular in her canon, its glamorous clamor still vital.