Songs of Mass Destruction

Annie Lennox

2007: Arista/Sony/BMG 88697152612

  1. Dark Road
  2. Love Is Blind
  3. Smithereens
  4. Ghosts in My Machine
  5. Womankind
  6. Through the Glass Darkly
  7. Lost
  8. Coloured Bedspread
  9. Sing
  10. Big Sky
  11. Fingernail Moon

Holy SHIT.

Any concern about Lennox’s 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 I’ve 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 album’s opening track, so I’ve 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 doesn’t exclude a personal reading of the lyrics). It’s 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 I’ve 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 that’s 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 I’d just been through, but I’d 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 album’s release, and I wasn’t particularly impressed by it. I like it more here, but it’s both qualified and constrained by evident storyline context that requires much more contemplation and weighing—which is fine, and I’ll come to like it more,* but it’s 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, it’s 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 it’s not at all bad and certainly adds the Mississippi/Cajun grit she was clearly trying to achieve with this wailer.

It’s a track that makes me want to be a big curvy black woman, because that’s 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 don’t think I’ve 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 hadn’t so solidly stapled it to women as a gender, because to my ears what she’s singing isn’t so much Everywoman’s Eternal Plaint as that of One Who Yearns and Burns. Plenty of “gay mens” can relate to this ferocious and coquettish hunger, and I’ll 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 there’s 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 isn’t about empowerment, it’s an unfiltered flow of the thoughts of a mind full of desire as it’s focused on the object of its possibly unattainable intentions (screw “affections,” this is the voice of In Heat). Mercifully there’s a classic Lennox twist on the scenario, however, as the second “baby’s got precious eyes” verse arrives in harsher lighting of a skewed mirror which illuminates the fact that all the accolades and assets she’s seeing in this boy are “only my imagination.” So there’s perspective after all, though it’ll 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 Annie’s workin’ some serious soul pipes here, with more than a hint of Pink (and that’s an overlap I enthusiastically approve of). But that reminds me, there’s 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 she’s doing (as she did with the “rich white girl” rap on Diva’s “Money Can’t Buy it”); my skeptical discomfort shifted about midway through the tuneless mutterings, when Lennox’s 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 song’s closing—a 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 it’s 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 won’t 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, you’d think we’d 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 instrumentation’s moody uncertain waters. In that sense it’s 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 latter’s much darker version. “Can I find you? Can I find you? I can’t find you….” It includes one of my favorite lines on the entire album: “When I’m 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 album’s 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 there’s “Lost.” Dark, darker, darkest. Like something left out from Bare but in a global/political personification rather than that album’s intensely personalized one. Before I’d even passed the chorus I was mentally naming this “How to Survive and Keep Hope Alive at Guantanamo after Your Country’s 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” video’s superhero bereft of her charge; “tell me the story ’bout when you were young / I want to hear it again…” Her gull-cries of “we’re 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 doesn’t end here, or we’d be back at the end of Bare with the razor blades arrayed on the floor in front of us.*

Every review or comment I’ve 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 I’d 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 Lennox’s 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 it’s not at all out of place: it’s a step inside after so much expressed feeling, a relatively contemplative evening inside the storm of Lennox’s 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 there’s a hint of rapturous love as well, although whether that’s 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 eyes”—oh, it’s 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 backstory’s not important, however, because the music is what it’s all about. But it does seem certain there’s 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 bridge’s bookending references to Lennox’s own “Little Bird.” That bridge, by the way, is a doozie—an explosively wild taste of what Lennox would be like in concert if there were four or five of her (and wouldn’t THAT be a concert for which seatbelts would have to be provided!). That it’s 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 don’t. It has the best of intentions and a truly glorious choir shining its chorus magnificently, but as a song it’s 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 didn’t completely waste the opportunity as Lennox herself did.

What irks me about the song is probably that it’s repetitive. Yes, the chorus is wonderful—goosebump territory, I can testify to that personally— but neither it nor the song goes anywhere. Ironically, however, I’m 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 they’re 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 choir’s song into this one’s 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, I’m 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 didn’t like to be made to think by an artist, I wouldn’t be a Lennox fan, would I? The track is also one of the few here that don’t roar into and through their second halves with at least as much power as their first halves, so it’s good that they tucked it here after the storm was past and as a mood deccelerator before the closing track’s 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. It’s definitely an album-closer. It stops everything and puts us in that huge night sky with her. As with “Big Sky,” this one isn’t immediately engaging to me (“it took a little time to get next to me,” as Lennox sang Paul Simon’s lyrics so appropriately), but I must say I’m curious to hear how it sounds to younger ears which aren’t attuned to Lennox’s lyrical “voice” already.

The big question buzzing among Lennox fans is of course “is it better than… [fill in the album name]?” While I’m personally of the belief that one can’t really compare a true artist’s 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”? That’s 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 one’s 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 aftermath—put the two album covers side by side if you need that confirmed more obviously.

Upon belated reflection I note that I don’t seem to have indicated whether or not I actually like this album. For the record, I love it. It’s 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 album’s 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 Lennox’s 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 personal—and I don’t begrudge her that—as on “Smithereens,” about which she makes interesting psychologial generalizations regardless of its lyric’s 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 that’s 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 Lennox’s private life, but even so I couldn’t pretend the song’s messages weren’t 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 I’m just grateful that she expresses her artistry with the rest of us.