Saturday, July 28, 2012

Let Annie Lennox Be A Diva, Her Solo Effort Starts Strong

The Good: Lyrics, Moments of voice, Moments of experimentalism
The Bad: Music does not pop or impress.
The Basics: Clearly a beginning of a solo career, Diva offers amazing lyrics by Annie Lennox with mediocre vocals and lesser musical accompaniment.

Before each of my music reviews, I tend to look up information on the artist or album just so I know how it fits into their pantheon. I like a little context for an artist and as I begin my exploration of the music of Annie Lennox, I was thrilled to discover that Diva is, in fact, her solo debut. I was even more encouraged to discover - when confirming that fact - that with the recent Songs Of Mass Destruction I picked up from Lennox, I am now in possession of all four solo endeavors Lennox has released. So far, I am impressed in that Lennox has lived up to my expectations of her and her work. Diva is a good album, but it is not a truly great album and it is not a debut that knocks it out of the park in a way that easily establishes Lennox as a superstar on her own without relying on her celebrity from the Eurythmics.

Of course, one would not know that from the way the album begins. "Why" is easily one of the most powerful musical poems ever created and "Walking On Broken Glass" was an easy, radio-friendly hit that did extraordinarily well on the charts. But outside those two songs, only "Cold" and "Primitive" hold up well over the multiple listens I have done with this album (I am on the eighth spinning of this disc as I write this). To be fair, "Cold" is only notable for the lyrics; musically, it is derivative of "Why."

With eleven tracks, clocking in at 50:28, Diva represents the musical vision and style of Annie Lennox. Completely divorced from her Eurythmics' partner, Dave Stewart (his name does not even appear in the liner notes under "thanks!") Lennox wrote all the songs, save one, though another two were co-written. She provided all of the vocals, which is impressive when one considers how sophisticated the backing vocals were on "Money Can't Buy It." As well, she plays keyboards on the album. While she does not receive any producing credits, given the amount of material for the album that is under her creative control, one suspects that she approved of most of what is on Diva.

In other words, Diva is a true Annie Lennox album, as far as an observer can tell. And it is good. Lyrically, Lennox once again proves herself an able poet and it's a tough album to listen to if for no other reason than the opening track is one that so phenomenally expresses an emotion. "Why" is a haunting song that is performed with Lennox's stark alto voice minimally produced and backed with limited orchestration. It is a simple song that asks the most emotionally complex question one can be forced to confront. "Why" explores the complexity of a broken relationship with lines like, "How many times do I have to try to tell you / That I'm sorry for the things I've done / But when I start to try to tell you / That's when you have to tell me / Hey... this kind of trouble's only just begun . . . I may be mad / I may be blind / I may be viciously unkind . But I can still read what you're thinking . . ." It's a chilling song and by the time Lennox utters the final line, "You don't know what I feel" ("Why"), the listener is absolutely convinced of that and the pain behind the implied confusion of it. The musical protagonist never gets her answer and "why" remains the most painful question to try to live with.

One suspects, then, that this is not an especially cheery album, whatwith Lennox's big hit from Diva coming in the form of "Walking On Broken Glass" (which appears as the second track on the disc). In that song, the musical protagonist is trapped in an abusive relationship which leads her to cry out, "Oh let the rain come down / Let the wind blow through me / I'm living in an empty room / With all the windows smashed / And I've got so little left to lose / That it feels just like I'm walking on broken glass" ("Walking On Broken Glass"). There are few songs in popular music where the protagonist cries out to be saved from their pain and suffering, but Lennox does it on that track and she makes it sound good while doing it!

Even her love song is tinged more with longing than satisfaction, as "Cold" laments, "I loved you right from the start... [hers] / But the more I want you the less I get / Ain't that just the way things are... [again, hers] / Winter has frozen us . . ." Lyrically, Lennox is an able poet and one who understands how beautiful lines can be for music and she is fearless in presenting songs that are thematically difficult. And on Diva, there is plenty of that.

In other ways, though, this is very much a typical, early-'90's pop-rock album. The songs are slow, mostly dancable with nothing really fast or loud. Instead, it's a keyboard-driven pop-rock album that almost entirely mutes the guitar (though it's in there) and focuses on production with minimal percussion.

Many of the songs are annoyingly overproduced in the musical accompaniment. "Stay By Me" impressed me on the first listen, but with each spinning of the disc, the more bored by the track I found myself and I blame the musical accompaniment for that. Sure, vocally she sounds like another familiar musical artist (for the life of me, I swear I cannot place her now, but it's someone in the range of Dido, I'm thinking . . . this is just bugging the crap out of me now! Wait, there it is! Sade!), but the problem with the song is that it is musically mundane. The produced keyboards and generic engineered percussion is just dull. The tune is listless and I couldn't hum it if I tried.

"Primitive," similarly, sounds like a track to a Disney animated feature. And an experimental track, that's what's so annoying about it. When the song ventures into a primal sound with drums and production elements that are less sophisticated, the track works. But when the instrumentation gets peppy and accompanies Lennox singing in a more straightforward way, the track loses something.

The only musical experiment that truly works is Lennox performing "Keep Young And Beautiful," the only track she did not write. On that song, the production element shifts the sound to a tinny, olde tyme sound to make the track completely ironic. It works, sounding like a 1950's show tune. It's clever and it's funny and it finishes the album off well enough.

But outside those two experiments and the more orchestral sound to "Why," Diva is very much a musically uninspired or auditorily unexciting. For popular music, it largely just does not pop. It's too produced and musically simple. This says something considering I'm a fan of folk-rock music, which is quite often a person and their guitar!

What is undeniable is the power of Annie Lennox's voice. She has a strong alto voice and on "Why" she has powerful pipes that entrance the listener. She brings that vocal forthrightness back for "Cold." And in that niche, she's a powerhouse.

But on Diva, she never challenges that. There is not a moment on this entire album where she stretches vocally to go lower or higher and step out of her comfort zone. As a result, it sounds vocally limited or restrained at times. In combination with a musical accompaniment that is someone unexciting, the album stands up poorly on multiple listens.

One suspects that when Lennox inevitably releases a greatest hits album, the best tracks from Diva will be on it, further reducing the enduring value of the album. In other words, the executives in the A&R department at BMG and Sony picked the singles well. They truly are the most the album has to offer a listener. And they are good, but not great.

The best track is "Why" and the low point is the utterly unmemorable "The Gift," which left absolutely no impression after all my listens to Diva.

For other works by Annie Lennox or her band the Eurythmics, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Little Bird (single)
Greatest Hits - Eurythmics
Eurythmics Live: 1983 – 1989


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing.

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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