Edge of 'Destruction'

October 19, 2007


Few singers in popular music understand the power of the contrast between sultry, soulful vocals and dark, bitter or foreboding lyrics better than Annie Lennox. So it will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the 52-year-old diva's work that her latest album is called "Songs of Mass Destruction."

Born and raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, and trained as a classical musician -- she studied flute at the Royal Academy of Music in London -- Lennox first made her mark in the rock world as half of the Eurythmics. Sporting an edgy, androgynous look and with an evil twinkle in her eye, she brought an earthy sensuality and a human spark to the sleek, synthesized pop crafted by her bandmate Dave Stewart, and the pair scored a string of indelible hits through the '80s, including "Missionary Man," "Here Comes the Rain Again" and, of course, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)."

A timeless masterpiece, the latter was inspired by a rancorous fight with Stewart, her boyfriend at the time. (Although the couple split up at that point, they continued to make music together until 1989, and reunited once for the 1999 album "Peace.")

"I thought it was the end of the road and that was that," the singer recently told the New York Times. "We were trying to write, and I was miserable. And he just went, 'Well, I'll do this, anyway.'"

Stewart developed the beat, Lennox added the simple but unforgettable hook and a multimillion-seller came together all at once.

"I sometimes think the creative process is like this," she said. "Sometimes you get to a really bad place, like that, something really, really bad. And then it just goes, and oof -- something comes. It's almost like the storm before the calm."

Twice married and divorced, once before her relationship with Stewart and once afterward, Lennox has said while the quest for romance has been a personal disappointment in her life, it always has been a reliable source of artistic inspiration. Indeed, this theme runs through much of "Songs of Mass Destruction" -- her fourth solo album since 1992, and the first since "Bare" in 2003 -- as evidenced by titles such as "Dark Road," "Love is Blind" and "Smithereens."

"Bright lights come and go / Playing blue songs on my radio," Lennox sings in "Through the Glass Darkly." "Shadows still appear / In the house tonight / Ghosts that come in from the past / All those ghosts that keep on coming back." Sentiments such as these make any listener want to give the artist a hug and a shoulder to cry on -- though if you're a man, you have to wonder if all that anger might not erupt in a well-placed kick to a vulnerable area.

The new album is not a beginning-to-end triumph. Produced by Glen Ballard, a veteran Los Angeles schlockmeister best known for working with Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera, Barbra Streisand and the late-era, ballad-crazed Aerosmith, the musical backings are often bland and sterile while simultaneously sounding overly fussy. But Lennox's voice has never been more powerful, and the emotional catharsis she's seeking from her failed loves resonates from even the most uninspired arrangements.

One of the most striking tracks on the new disc: "Sing," an anthem of female self-empowerment inspired by the crisis of AIDS in Africa. (Lennox is donating all proceeds from the track, which can be downloaded from www.annielennox.com, to TAC, the Treatment Action Campaign for HIV treatment and prevention.)

Shooting for a "We Are the World"-style sing-along but assuming she'd fall short, Lennox put out a call to some of the female pop stars she admires most to join her in the studio. To her surprise, almost everyone said yes, and the final tally for the all-star choir is 23 singers, including Madonna, Shakira, Faith Hill, Martha Wainwright, k.d. lang, Gladys Knight, Fergie and Beth Orton.

Lennox doesn't believe the song will solve the problem in Africa. But she does think that raising awareness is a start, as she told the West Australian newspaper. "As a musician, as an artist, as a songwriter, I thought, 'Well, one of the things I can do is use music as a vehicle, as a tool to convey the message and also perhaps to raise money and awareness.' "