On "I Never Wear White," a track from Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, her first album of new material in seven years, Suzanne Vega refers to herself as "the poet of the dark." The song is surprisingly gritty, with an edgy electric-guitar riff from producer and collaborator Gerry Leonard.
"Black is the truth/ of my situation,/ and for those of my station/ in life. All other colors lie," she sings.
It might be more apt to call Vega, whose first album came out in 1985, a poet of the true. Her songs, from the early "Small Blue Thing" and "Marlene on the Wall," to the new "Jacob and the Angel" and "Crack in the Wall," are precise, specific vignettes, carefully crafted and thoughtfully descriptive, poetic in their attention to detail.
Vega, who just completed a tour of Asia and Australia, comes Monday to the World Café Live.
"I am aiming to tell a specific truth," Vega writes by e-mail. "Every single time. Not just to express a general emotion, but the actual specific truth of what I'm writing about, and make it rhyme and make it rhythmic and flow with some kind of melodic idea. I am always editing and reediting something. Some of the songs have taken years."
Vega's last album was 2007's well-received Beauty & Crime for Blue Note Records. Label-less since then, she has been working with songwriter Duncan Sheik on a musical about writer Carson McCullers. She also rerecorded much of her back catalog for her own Amanuensis Productions label in a four-volume Close-Up series of themed collections grouped as Love Songs, People & Places, States of Being, and Songs of Family. The project was in part practical, as it allowed her to reclaim ownership of her work from the record companies.
"I embarked on this project so others would see the themes in the songs and maybe hear a few things they hadn't heard before," she says. "It allows me to sell the CDs at every show, and many people have discovered my back catalog and the songs other than 'Luka' and 'Tom's Diner.' "
That catalog is worth exploring. Vega, 54, has been remarkably consistent since her late-'80s heyday, when she was at the center of a folk revival that included artists such as Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls. The self-released Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, her eighth album of new material, is no exception.
"Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain" reveals Vega's fondness for hip-hop: She and Leonard, who also worked with David Bowie on his last few albums and who will accompany Vega on Monday, use a sample from 50 Cent's "Candy Shop" and a lyrical allusion to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' "Thrift Shop."
Several songs, including "Fool's Complaint" and "Portrait of the Knight of Wands," refer to characters from tarot cards.
"I found a book and a deck of cards on the last tour," she says, "and fell in love with the world of tarot."
Many of the songs on Tales grapple with the connections between the material and spiritual world - one of the implications of the Queen of Pentacles in the tarot deck - and they're some of Vega's brightest and liveliest.
"I have always wanted to write more like Stevie Wonder or Paul Simon," Vega says, "songwriters who are capable of writing songs that are deep and soulful and joyful. I was fortunate to have an e-mail conversation with Paul Simon, who wrote to me, 'Joy is not corny. You can do this.' His advice helped me write 'Horizon,' the last song on the album."
She dedicates "Horizon" to the late Czech leader Václav Havel, whom she knew. "I sang 'Tom's Diner' for his birthday, and after that he invited me to breakfast," she says. "He came to many performances when I played in Prague. . . . He says in Letters to Olga: 'God is the horizon.' He wrote this while in prison. I was moved by this line and wanted to write about it."
"Horizon" is one of Vega's most beautiful songs, a loving and prayerful elegy. "Love pulls us on to that distant horizon, so true," she sings in the chorus, another poetic affirmation of a truth.
Suzanne Vega, with Ari Heist
8 p.m. Monday at World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St.
Tickets: $45. Information: 215-222-1400 or www.worldcafelive.com.