Songs of Mass Destruction
2007: Arista/Sony/BMG 88697152612
Any concern about Lennoxs well-being after the wrenching inside-out catharsis of Bare can now be decisively jettisoned, not merely shelved. There is more raging fire and combustability here than Ive heard from her since Would I Lie to You? back in 1985.
Dark Road as a single is very different from how it is as this albums opening track, so Ive addressed that separately. Here, it does introduce the album and explain a bit of the combinations of personal and sociopolitical emotions that infuse nearly every track to some degree. With its explosive bridge, it also slams down a gauntlet (or is it just a calling card?) to inform us all that Annie Lennox is alive and kick-boxing. Whether the message of the song is personal or political, at heart, is open to debate (especially in light of its video, which puts things solidly in the latter court but doesnt exclude a personal reading of the lyrics). Its a lovely recording, regardless of all that, and nearly matches Wonderful (off of Bare) for the sheer range of expression (Wonderful tops this because it goes from full-blast wail to near-whisper in a single nine-word, four-second phrase).
Love Is Blind was the best blindsiding surprise Ive had in a long time. Its title is deceptive, to say the least; its opening seconds are equally so, because after that wisp of edgy ambience (a whiff of Sufjan Stevens, in retrospect) we step onto a rather 1920s stage, and the singer is NOT the earnest guiding-light sobber who just finished singing Dark Road. This here is a lusty mama with a smoky growl of a voice and a hunger that you can feel eating you alive if she happens to look directly at you.
And thats just the beginning! JESUS what a ride she takes us on. By the time I got to the end of my first hearing of this track, not only did I have to pause the CD and take wide-eyed stock of what Id just been through, but Id already had its waaaaay-over-the-top second verse wiped from my mind by the tired of sequence that slides the barrelling-down train off its tracks and right down the side of a very big mountain. I swear this kind of metaphor is appropriate; check this track out yourself (ideally on headphones at hefty volume level) if you doubt me. And boy oh boy is that last minute and a half of the track the thing to take an angry, self-pitying walk to sometime.
I first heard/saw Smithereens in a live TV appearance Lennox did shortly before the albums release, and I wasnt particularly impressed by it. I like it more here, but its both qualified and constrained by evident storyline context that requires much more contemplation and weighingwhich is fine, and Ill come to like it more,* but its sandwiched here between two pairs of powerhouse tracks and even though at its end it takes a left turn and goes off with engines roaring up to the top of a nearby hill, its a break in the flow (probably a needed one).
Presumably the idea for Ghosts in My Machine would have come to her while she was touring with Sting a couple of years ago (and bagging all the rave reviews by comparison to his part of the concerts, bless his heart), but nothing else about it says The Police. It has one hell of a rambunctious groove, made much more effective on headphones in the studio version than it was to me in the live version I first heard (see above). The accordion is an odd element, juxtaposed with her voice, but its not at all bad and certainly adds the Mississippi/Cajun grit she was clearly trying to achieve with this wailer.
Its a track that makes me want to be a big curvy black woman, because thats the kind of body that can get the most funky bounce and double-gyration out of a track like this. (I have in mind more E.C. Scott than 1980s-days Billi Gordon, but I have no doubt each would attain that level of formidibly down-and-dirty groove Lennox is dishing up here.) Its ending! Oh!!! Deconstruct-a-rama! Love it!
I dont think Ive ever before had occasion to use the word lusty twice in describing the same album, let alone for two such different songs, but welcome to the world of Annie Lennox Unleashed. Womankind necessitates this, after Love Is Blind. I wish she hadnt so solidly stapled it to women as a gender, because to my ears what shes singing isnt so much Everywomans Eternal Plaint as that of One Who Yearns and Burns. Plenty of gay mens can relate to this ferocious and coquettish hunger, and Ill bet there are many lesbia who will shift the handful of he/his references to she/her and get on with the business of getting down and sweaty to this ode to the conflagration we call Desire. (And then theres the irony of calling out rescue me to someone who will only become a new shackle on a person who wants more.)
Reviewers who apply the word empowerment to this track appear to not have read the lyrics or even listened to them very closely; this isnt about empowerment, its an unfiltered flow of the thoughts of a mind full of desire as its focused on the object of its possibly unattainable intentions (screw affections, this is the voice of In Heat). Mercifully theres a classic Lennox twist on the scenario, however, as the second babys got precious eyes verse arrives in harsher lighting of a skewed mirror which illuminates the fact that all the accolades and assets shes seeing in this boy are only my imagination. So theres perspective after all, though itll likely be missed amid the heat. Such great lyrics for illustrating the hunger of desire: I wish I had a lover who could turn this water into wine / I wish I had a lover who could give me love at any time. Honey, honey YEAH! Girlfriend sings it for all of us in our yearning times.
And OOOoooOOO! for a dancefloor for this one! Miss Annies workin some serious soul pipes here, with more than a hint of Pink (and thats an overlap I enthusiastically approve of). But that reminds me, theres a rap verse here. As a non-fan of Rap, I could do without it, but this is an Annie Lennox track and I trust that she knows what shes doing (as she did with the rich white girl rap on Divas Money Cant Buy it); my skeptical discomfort shifted about midway through the tuneless mutterings, when Lennoxs voice slid atop it as a background descant which provided a melodic spine and turned it into something musical after all. And she rode it into the rollercoaster of the songs closinga closing which at first seemed like Eurythmics territory but eventually registered as being more Dave Stewart than Annie Lennox, which was quite a surprise. But then Nadirah X (the rappeuse) is a Stewart discovery/collaborator, so maybe the stylistic crossover is due to that bridge or maybe its just because this puppy moves at a pace Dave would have goaded Annie to.
That closing sequence grew like ivy-on-speed on me, by the way. The rap had a few very catchy phrases, and two of the three best (every desire go through the fire and baby wont you rescue me) weave into this trippy and supremely danceable sequence, although the other one that caught me (all my wants are becoming needs) got left out despite being a classic Lennox sentiment. Lyrically Womankind hits me as even more carnal and archetypical than Wonderful (on Bare). Delicious, eventually, and tangy throughout in various ways.
After all that exertion on both her part and ours, youd think wed get a rest, and Through the Glass Darkly does seem to promise one, at first. And then it unfurls enormously into vocal hyperbolics atop and around its instrumentations moody uncertain waters. In that sense its vocally baroque, or at least the vocal equivalent of interpretive dance to a murky and un-rushed base. Looking at the album overall, and with the confrontational Dark Road video in mind, I can see this as the latters much darker version. Can I find you? Can I find you? I cant find you . It includes one of my favorite lines on the entire album: When Im with you / the nights are cold and long oh so deliciously Lennox. This is a surprisingly short track but it sounds much longer than it actually is, glistening with echoed moonlight through its slithering unsettled twists.
But if you thought that was the albums darkest point, clutch your All-Day Pass with white knuckles and frantically study it to see if there are any clauses in the legalese indicating that you may not get out alive, because then theres Lost. Dark, darker, darkest. Like something left out from Bare but in a global/political personification rather than that albums intensely personalized one. Before Id even passed the chorus I was mentally naming this How to Survive and Keep Hope Alive at Guantanamo after Your Countrys Government Allows the U.S.s C.I.A. to Kidnap You in the Middle of the Night. Again, possibly a dark twin to the Dark Road videos superhero bereft of her charge; tell me the story bout when you were young / I want to hear it again Her gull-cries of were lost (especially at the end of the first chorus) are downright unnerving. We really are plunged into darkness by this one, and with reason. Thankfully the album doesnt end here, or wed be back at the end of Bare with the razor blades arrayed on the floor in front of us.*
Every review or comment Ive read about this album in the two days since its release and in the smattering of preview assessments has connected Coloured Bedspread with Eurythmics territory and said it would be completely at home there. Much as Id prefer to not chime in with a me, too, and to counter with a different viewpoint, I have to agree (not concede or admit, but agree): even though nothing in the released Eurythmics catalogue ever projected Lennoxs voice across such a vast soundscape, the mood and effect are definitely within their broad milieu.
This makes it a special, standalone track here, yet its not at all out of place: its a step inside after so much expressed feeling, a relatively contemplative evening inside the storm of Lennoxs thoughts. A gorgeous, glorious one, too this is an addictively attractive track, although it might not sound that way on first listen amid everything else on this album. And theres a hint of rapturous love as well, although whether thats for someone else or for her own creative spirit is a point for interesting consideration. I absolutely love the cosmic lines ending each verse with an upward-and-outward turn of her gaze: you make the stars dissolve / like sugar melting in my mouth and we make the stars collide / I touch the planets through your eyesoh, its magical, it really is. Part of me hears it as Annie singing to Dave, in a historical sense anyway or a memory of the time when their love affair and their musical partnership coincided.
The backstorys not important, however, because the music is what its all about. But it does seem certain theres some self-referential aspects to this track: I mean, seriously, the first line of the song is almost exactly the melody of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), and there can be no mistaking the bridges bookending references to Lennoxs own Little Bird. That bridge, by the way, is a dooziean explosively wild taste of what Lennox would be like in concert if there were four or five of her (and wouldnt THAT be a concert for which seatbelts would have to be provided!). That its contained as tightly as it is by those Little Bird brackets is an eyebrow-raisingly thrilling touch which merits a profound nod of appreciation from me, to say the least.*
I really wanted to like Sing. But I dont. It has the best of intentions and a truly glorious choir shining its chorus magnificently, but as a song its weak, and that Lennox sang the first verse in a tight, weak falsetto sank it for me from just past the start. That Madonna was not only involved but took a verse for herself only made things worse, but at least she didnt completely waste the opportunity as Lennox herself did.
What irks me about the song is probably that its repetitive. Yes, the chorus is wonderfulgoosebump territory, I can testify to that personally but neither it nor the song goes anywhere. Ironically, however, Im fervently hoping to hear the long version Glen Ballard was quoted as indicating they want to produce, as it would give more play to the choir of 23 and the ways each of them celebrated in the song. As a showcase for them all it would be delightful; en masse theyre effective but nowhere near fully realized. [A caveat: the video/single release of Sing is nearly upon us, and I watched a preview of that video and was MUCH more impressed by it than I was this version on the album. What knocked things onto the good side of the balance was the full inclusion of the Treatment Action Campaign choirs song into this ones chorus, instead of merely bookending the track.]
Big Sky is going to take some replaying and time for me to get into. It has a great opening line (Big sky, Im gonna hurt you) which starts things off on an excellently complicated and confrontational footing, but before the verse is out the second foot has been placed down just as solidly but facing in a different direction. Well, if I didnt like to be made to think by an artist, I wouldnt be a Lennox fan, would I? The track is also one of the few here that dont roar into and through their second halves with at least as much power as their first halves, so its good that they tucked it here after the storm was past and as a mood deccelerator before the closing tracks poignant intimacy.
I half-hoped Fingernail Moon would be a reaching-out to peoples of Islamic cultures, but it does seem to be more surface-level territory. Its definitely an album-closer. It stops everything and puts us in that huge night sky with her. As with Big Sky, this one isnt immediately engaging to me (it took a little time to get next to me, as Lennox sang Paul Simons lyrics so appropriately), but I must say Im curious to hear how it sounds to younger ears which arent attuned to Lennoxs lyrical voice already.
The big question buzzing among Lennox fans is of course is it better than [fill in the album name]? While Im personally of the belief that one cant really compare a true artists works to each other in a judgemental sense, and that each informs the next in some way (or removes a story from the book of things yet to come, to consider another spin), the relative performance quality can be assessed by putting all the titles together.
Is it better than Diva? Thats the toughest comparison; it definitely blows Medusa out of the water on all counts, pleasant as that album is on its own merits. I think on the whole Diva still has a slight edge over Songs of Mass Destruction, if only because its ending was more cohesively effective than this ones ambiguous close. As for Bare, well, these are two sides of the same coin, equally valid Before and After pictures (or, more accurately, During and After). Here the phoenix has risen resplendent in even hotter flames from its ashen aftermathput the two album covers side by side if you need that confirmed more obviously.
Upon belated reflection I note that I dont seem to have indicated whether or not I actually like this album. For the record, I love it. Its fantastically great, and I am grateful beyond words to Annie Lennox (and all involved) for having created it. This is a glowing and pulsating jewel amid great darkness.
Within 24 hours of writing the above (again, only a couple of days after the albums release), I quite unexpectedly came into possession of a copy of the limited edition version of the CD that contains a second disc with Artist Commentary (naturally of great interest to me). Having listened to it and processed its relevance to my own observations, I would only modify a few bits of what I wrote specifically that Lennoxs comments about Fingernail Moon give me a much better perspective for approaching the song than I had, that her acknowledgement of the sensual nature of Coloured Bedspread enhances my tentative notice of that and recasts the bookended bridge in an orgasmic light, that Lost has World War II roots, and that Big Sky is still going to take some time to understand but now has more meat to chew on.
The commentary overall is a mixed (and minimal) bag, but there are some delightful moments where Lennox actually laughs as she tells the story, and those are worth any extra price of this CD on their own, really. She also evades honest commentary where the subject matter is plainly too personaland I dont begrudge her thatas on Smithereens, about which she makes interesting psychologial generalizations regardless of its lyrics seemingly obvious relevance in her own recent divorce. (Still she adds a welcome layer of interpretation by positing the scenario of college/school friends who move on in their lives and the un-knotted ends of those relationships that dangle unhappily for awhile, and thats a personal perspective I can definitely relate to and in which I am coming to appreciate Smithereens properly.) I have no interest in dwelling on Lennoxs private life, but even so I couldnt pretend the songs messages werent closer to the core than usual. Well, one of her cores, anyway. Annie Lennox is a living palimpsest, a profoundly three-dimensional person; her life is her own business, and Im just grateful that she expresses her artistry with the rest of us.
Comments © 2007 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.