By Daniel Garrett
Annie Lennox, Songs of Mass Destruction
Produced by Glen Ballard
Mixed by Tom Lord-Alge
Arista, Sony/BMG, 2007
“You could be the best thing to come into my mythology.”
—Annie Lennox, “Womankind” (Songs of Mass Destruction
“It’s hard to see the glass is full and not half empty.”
—Annie Lennox, “A Thousand Beautiful Things” (Bare)
In Annie Lennox’s voice are anger, chill, hurt, and sympathy. “Dark Road” seems a song about evasion, the evasion of human presence and meaning, and while that implication is clear—and Lennox’s voice gives the suggestion drama, emotion—I would not be quick to say that the lyrics are precise or vivid. It would be good to have more details about what in the narrator’s life is wrong. The lyrics seem to insist on expectation and its frustration: “There’s a feelin’ but you’re not feelin’ it at all. There’s a meaning, but you’re not listening any more.” The song gives us a place in which there is absence, conflict, tension, a place in which “you never realize a good thing till it’s gone.” Yet, I identify: how could I not?, as what is being described is modern loneliness, a state and a subject to be found in fiction and films, poetry and music: knowing that meaning is likely to be lost or unshared seems the only possible revelations. “I can’t find the joy within my soul,” Lennox sings. What are the hopes and defeats of daily life? Who are the people who disappoint? What kind of work is too alienating or too tiring? Is the listener expected to supply the story out of her, or his, own life?
The insistently thudding beat and Annie Lennox’s declamatory style in “Love is Blind” are reminiscent of her work with Eurythmics (the Savage album) and of her own Bare. In the song “Love is Blind,” Annie Lennox sings, “I spend my life getting older, but you still got me on the run,” a rather stark declaration, an admission of lust and need, of inevitability, even though the song’s narrator acknowledges that she “can’t decide if it’s hell or bliss,” and that confusion, that pain, may be the result of not looking within and cultivating her inner life, but rather looking outside of her self—without. It is shocking—a necessary shock—when the narrator admits, “Can’t you see that I’m addicted to the notion of a someone who could take me from this wretched state?” One of the interesting things about Lennox’s singing is that when she uses different tones in her songs, she summons different perspectives and it is as if we are hearing different aspects of the singer’s self. Her chanted litany in “Love Is Blind,” a litany of exhaustion and frustration, is as fierce a sound as any in popular music.
I sometimes wonder if sadness is one of the strongest elements that connect some of us to women singers: these singers acknowledge pain without fear or shame, acting as models or surrogates for the rest of us. “Smithereens” could be about a conversation and relationship between mother and child, or between friends, or between lovers: two people have parted, and one learns of the other’s vulnerability and negative judgment and tries to convey some understanding that will bridge the gulf and make bitterness less likely. In singing “Smithereens,” following various verses, Lennox punctuates them with “oh, oh yeah” and the first time she says that it can seem mockery of cliché or a purely rote addition (later it carries more intensity)—ordinary slang is thrown in relief when set against eloquence or emotion. There is some pretty, wordless singing near the end of the song, oddly and charmingly cheery. “Everybody is an island to themselves,” Lennox repeats at song’s end.
After listing her many faults or hindrances—seeing too much, knowing, hurting, falling, dying too much—the narrator admits again and again to being “caught up by the ghosts in my machine,” tormented by memory. In the song “Ghost in My Machine,” Lennox declares in a thundering voice amid a thundering rhythm, “Womankind was born for pain,” the kind of thought that cannot help but conjure both suffering and rage. It is not the kind of thought one wants to hear decades after we all have been made aware of feminist analysis, of examinations of how society has used women, and of how women might make different alliances, researches, and choices. It may be that the personal subverts the political. Yet, the subsequent shift in the song’s musical arrangement is very effective, sounding nearly tribal—elemental and spiritual, an exorcism.
In “Womankind,” Lennox fuses infatuation, desire, and love, with both spiritual deliverance and also self-indulgence. It is an intoxicating mix. (In the song, Nadirah X raps lines about wants becoming needs.) Lennox sings to a possible lover, “You could be the best thing to come into my mythology.” It is hard to criticize a perspective that seems so self-aware. “I would be so happy, but it’s only my imagination,” she adds. There is both knowledge and madness in these many lines of hope and its contestation. That Lennox sounds as aware as she is intense saves the song from a contemptible pathos.
“When I’m with you the days are bittersweet” and “I’m looking through the glass darkly” Lennox sings in “Through the Glass Darkly.” She notes bright lights that come and go, blues songs, shadows, ghosts, and nights that are cold and long, admitting “it seems I don’t belong,” only failing to mention dogs nipping at her rear (a la All About Eve). I have found often something both sad and hilarious about some of Lennox’s lyrics, especially in the songs she did with Dave Stewart as part of Eurythmics, but in the past I could think that the humor I found was intended. That seems not the case here, regarding the lyrics. Yet, Annie Lennox’s vocal control is impressive, drawing from soul and jazz singing as much as a classical ballad technique (at one point I thought I could imagine her voice as a horn, possibly a trombone). Out of artistic respect, I could call this album a meditation on a woman’s sorrow. Out of personal sanity, I must say that there are aspects of human reality that she is leaving out of the picture she is presenting. The ballad “Lost,” which sounds a little like “Love Song for a Vampire,” expands the realm of torment, and may be about war and torture. (One night, I fell asleep listening to Songs of Mass Destruction, and I had a dream—in black and white, as in an old film—of a woman having an argument with a loved one, then walking proudly away, and throwing herself before an oncoming train, her torn body retrieved by her mother.) On the album, there is a brief reprieve in Lennox’s song “Coloured Bedspread,” offering fantasy, intimacy, memory, pleasure, sex, but it cannot match the established gloom. The song’s intimate theme is set to a dance beat, and it is easy to imagine the song’s inventive electronic sounds in a club (the song might aid seduction there).
Annie Lennox’s collaboration with some of the more dynamic and famous women of her time in the beautiful and rousing “Sing” is an undeniable affirmation: “sing my sister, sing, let your voice be heard.” On the song are Madonna, Joss Stone, Angelique Kidjo, Gladys Knight, and Faith Hill, among others. In terms of the vocal sound, “Sing” along with “Smithereens,” “Through the Glass Darkly,” and “Big Sky” are my favorite songs in the collection. In terms of instrumental sound, I am inclined towar
d “Ghost in My Machine” and “Coloured Bedspread.”
The song “Big Sky,” embroidered with piano notes, might be about a love affair or the natural environment—or a love seen as important as the sky. The lyrics strike me as vague, and also mention weeping and wailing—but it is Lennox’s voice that threatens and soothes, and the song’s refrain has a radiance making resistance improbable. The slowly paced but not quite quiet “Fingernail Moon” seems a call to nature, a call out of need, or a want that has become need. I think Annie Lennox is a great singer.
Daniel Garrett wrote about Annie Lennox’s album Bare, commentary that appeared on the web pages of PopMatters.com. Daniel Garrett has been a longtime resident of New York, and his work has appeared in, or been featured by, The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, PopMatters.com, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.