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
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
"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.' "