The Good: Impressive vocals, Great mix of songs, Intriguing musical accompaniment
The Bad: One or two lesser tracks, Short
The Basics: Annie Lennox covers the works of other singer-songwriters and in the process proves that she can make anyone's lyrics sound like hers and she has incredible vocal range!
I know a thing or two about liberal guilt, as a liberal who frequently is found feeling guilty about something or another, but I'm not sure there is an acknowledged condition of "reviewer's guilt." I mean, we reviewers are supposed to be professional, efficient and as honest and discriminating as possible, right? Yet, as I sit down to review the Annie Lennox album Medusa, I am overcome with a strong sense of guilt and I already know why.
Medusa is a strong, four-star album. No question in my mind about that. It is a wonderful album and I enthusiastically recommend it. My feelings of guilt come because yesterday when I reviewed Diva, I could not bring myself to bump it up into the “above average” category. It just didn't pop after a few spins and it was not as extraordinary an album as I wanted it to be (especially with its frontloading). The guilt comes because I have a profound respect for Annie Lennox as an artist and I generally prefer artists to performers. I still remember the profound feeling of disappointment when reading through the liner notes to Tina Turner's All My Best (reviewed here!) and discovering that she was a performer, not an artist (the distinction being one creates art through writing, writing music, playing instruments and/or producing, the other plays what is stuck before them). Even when I was on my recent kick of listening to the music of Elvis Presley, I lost a little respect for him when I discovered he was largely fed his material from a huge variety of sources; even the annoying Eminem wrote more of his own stuff! (Wow, that's a line it killed me to write!) So, when I am faced with a true artist, like Annie Lennox, whose work with the Eurythmics indisputably lands her in the artist category, I find myself feeling a strange guilt for liking her cover album more than her original works. Go figure.
That said, "Wow!" Medusa.
With ten tracks, clocking in at 46:34, Medusa is anything but the original vision of Annie Lennox as she did not write any of the songs on the album, nor produce the work. This is Annie Lennox as a performer and the truth is she and her people picked an amazing mix of songs to have her cover. Honestly, I have heard four - perhaps five - of the songs performed by their original artists, but after Medusa, Lennox pretty much owns each of these tracks. I was not entirely prepared for that.
Even more impressive, I was not prepared to like a song more than "No More 'I Love You's,'" the Annie Lennox version of which has been a favorite for quite some time. But, as I go into my tenth listen to this album, there's another song that has managed to get my attention and make me care about it more than I ever thought I would. I am referring to Lennox's cover of Bob Marley's "Waiting In Vain." But, I leap forward.
When Medusa was originally released, I was in high school and I thought Annie Lennox was wonderful, but I never got around to listening to the album or purchasing anything by her. Truth be told, I was a bit poor and I only bought about two albums a year. I remember seeing the music video for "No More 'I Love You's'" and being blown away; it was so creative and intriguing and different from anything else on the music video channels at the time. Now that I have listened to Medusa several times, perhaps the true genius of it is that Lennox and her production staff at BMG/Arista picked songs that have a strong sense of lyrical power to them that easily allows the listener to believe that Lennox herself might have written any of them. In other words, the songs are clever enough and have a lyrical complexity that blends seamlessly into the established collection of known Annie Lennox works. The result is an album where Lennox is able to articulate the words of others and make them seem like they are her own.
"No More 'I Love You's'" might well be the perfect example of that. Near the end of the song, there is a monologue wherein the musical protagonist insists, "Everybody was being really crazy. / Uh huh. The monsters are crazy. / There are monsters outside" ("No More 'I Love You's'") and Lennox does her best childish voice and sells the monologue. She sells the childlike aspects of it with the same ability as she sells the genuine wrenching emotional magnitude of lines like, "I used to be lunatic from the gracious days / I used to be woebegone and so restless nights / My aching heart would bleed for you to see / Oh but now / (I don't find myself bouncing home whistling buttonhole tunes to make me cry) / No more "I love you's" / The language is leaving me" ("No More 'I Love You's'"). That level of diction is not present in the lyrics from just any artist and that Lennox and her people found songs with similarly strong levels of vocabulary as Lennox herself makes this a tremendous album.
And I've long loved that song. So, when I heard Lennox perform "Waiting In Vain," a song I'm not sure I truly HEARD the way it is written until I heard Lennox sing it on Medusa, and it floored me, I knew I was in the presence of something incredible. Lennox plaintively sings the lines, "In life I know / That there is lots of grief / But your love is my relief / Tears in my eyes burn /. . .While I'm waitin' for my day . . ./ I don't wanna wait in vain for your love" ("Waiting In Vain") with an emotional intensity that perfectly characterizes loneliness and desire. The raw emotion recharacterizes the simply lyrics as deceptive in the brilliance of the directness of the lines. Lennox takes the simple words written and adds an emotional intensity that change the singsong nature of the lines into something incredible. There ought to be a Grammy for sheer creativity.
Even the repetitive "Thin Line Between Love And Hate" is reborn with a sense of freshness with Lennox's vocals. I even found myself accepting the somewhat simple rhyme scheme in "Train In Vain" - "away/day," "bay/say," "be/me," "pay/stay," etc. - because the track at least sounded different from the others. In truth, though, Lennox manages to cover some great singer-songwriters on Medusa, culling the talents of Paul Simon, Neil Young, and The Clash and she does it in such a way that makes each song sound fresh and new.
It comes down, largely to the vocals and the instrumentation. The two come together perfectly on the powerful, moody "Don't Let It Bring You Down," wherein Lennox's voice is a haunting soprano while the keyboards delve melodically into the bass regions. One might recall the song from the final seduction scene of American Beauty (reviewed here!). The song fit the mood perfectly there, but it is evocative of destruction and loss on its own and the contrast between voice and instrumentation are incredible.
But vocally, Medusa has what Diva largely lacked. Annie Lennox is an established and safe alto and on this album she pushes her range in every direction. She ventures into soprano on "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down," while presenting a lower, almost-Elvis-like presentation of "Train In Vain." She has a voice that makes it sound effortless going from one register to another and she makes it rock.
"Train In Vain" is also a great example of Lennox branching out with the instrumentation. Unlike the larger, produced, sometimes orchestral backing Lennox gets elsewhere on the album, this song is a simple guitar and drums track. Lennox presents it almost as a folk-rock track and she makes it sound funky and it works. Indeed, this album illustrates a powerful ability for Lennox to be creative even with the words and tunes of another. She makes them resonate as her own with her voice and one is only left wishing for more.
I usually do not go into peripheral issues in regards to an album, but with Medusa, I feel compelled to not that the album was nominated for a Grammy, but lost to Joni Mitchell's Turbulent Indigo. Wow, Lennox was robbed on that one! I know both albums managed to get four-stars from me, but let me tell you, Medusa is vastly superior in many ways.
The best track is (it's a surprise to me, too) Lennox's haunting rendition of "Waiting In Vain" and the low point is the somewhat unmemorable "Downtown Lights" which left little impression even after all of these spins.
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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