Thursday, August 9, 2012

Soulful, Danceable, Honest Annie Lennox Is Stripped Bare, But Still Doesn't Land It.

The Good: Voice, Moments of music, Cover art/explanation, Mood/emotion
The Bad: Many predictable lyrics/song titles, Album doesn't come together to "pop."
The Basics: Bare by Annie Lennox is a complex album with lyrics that are often too simple, though she emotes well and backs them with some interesting music.

When I first heard it, when I did my first four or five listens to it, I did not like Fiona Apple's debut album Tidal. Tidal (reviewed here!) was lyrically exceptional, vocally fair and musically limited . . . at least that was my first take on it. Years later, I came back to the album after finding I was humming non-single tracks and after borrowing it from the same friend who lent it to me the first time, I ended up buying it. It's still in my permanent collection. I mention this at the outset of my review for the Annie Lennox album Bare because I have listened to the album thirteen times now (no kidding!) and it's just no popping for me. I think this may be like Tidal in that it might be an album that grows on me in a few years. As it stands now, I'm setting it aside after this review and resuming my eager anticipation of my first listen to Songs Of Mass Destruction (Annie Lennox's album that I have been building up to because I actually purchased it "blind!") tonight.

I came into Bare blind as well; I had heard none of the tracks, read nothing about the album and when I picked it up and read the extensive explanation on the back of the disc pertaining to the artwork on the cover, I was anticipating something truly great. Indeed, the idea of an album that exposed singer-songwriter Annie Lennox completely appealed to me. Who wouldn't want to peek inside that mind? Annie Lennox might well be one of the few people still living that I have not met who I would get excited to have a conversation with. Unfortunately, from even the first listen, I found myself wanting something more from this album.

With eleven tracks, clocking in at 49:03, Bare is hailed as the most personal album by singer-songwriter Annie Lennox to date. All of the tracks were written by Lennox and she performs all of the vocals on the album as well. Moreover, Annie Lennox plays the keyboards, though which tracks she plays them on and which other musicians contribute is not made clear. Lennox does not receive any production credit for Bare, but given that she describes the album as "deeply personal and emotional" on the back cover of the disc, one might assume that she was generally happy with the execution of her musical vision. Bare, then, is a very pure Annie Lennox musical experience.

And the songs are generally slow and dense, emotional and powerful. The ones that speed up to dance-track tempo still have lyrics that are tormented and filled with longing. The songs range from the dance-pop "Pavement Cracks" to the smooth late-70's mellow sound of "The Hurting Time" to the agonizing ballad "The Saddest Song I've Got." Lyrically, most of the songs are involved with exploring emotional pain and distance. The songs about moving on ("Erased") are tinged with more melancholy than hope. Even the dressed up moments of empathy, like Lennox singing "Hopelessness / Is the darkness in your heart / It's the sound of one hand clapping... [ellipses hers] / While it's pulling you apart / . . . And I know . . . / What you feel" ("Loneliness") come amid some of the most wrenching descriptions of emotional turmoil.

Here's the thing, my big problem with Bare is in the thing I have traditionally liked most about Annie Lennox; her lyrics. My first listen, I found myself calling lines before Lennox sung the exact line or rhyme I said. No, I'm not clairvoyant and while I am intelligent, the gripe here is not that I was suddenly too smart for this album; Lennox is dishing out painfully predictable rhymes and lines on Bare. As someone who listens to a lot of music and reads quite a bit, I suppose I might have something of an advantage, but when I'm calling the poetics of a great mind like Annie Lennox, I err on the side that she's just getting lyrically lazy as opposed to any brilliance on my part. So, for example, when listening to "Honestly" the first time, someone might have thought I had heard the song as I went back and forth, listening to a line and then calling the next one (with 100% word for word accuracy!) when she sings, "Was I blind / Deaf and dumb / To the words slipped from your tongue? / . . . Alone in my bed / The things that you said / Go round in my head....still / It seems to be true / That nothin' I do / Can influence you . . . " I found myself wincing with the track that followed with rhymes like "got/lot," "fool/uncool," and "blue/you." "Wonderful" is just troubling, down to its questions of "Does it feel cold baby? / Does it feel hot?" At least that track sounds good with its pounding keyboards and the crescendos and the musical passion behind it.

Many of the tracks are overly produced with a strong pop-rock, pop-dance sensibility, but then, what does one expect from Annie Lennox, who hypnotized the world with "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)," arguably one of the most repetitive (though wonderful) pop-dance songs of all time. The songs that are not dance-heavy ("Bitter Pill," for example stands out in this regard) tend to be slow and agonizing in their emotive depth (like "The Hurting Time" and especially "The Saddest Song I've Got").

Bare has a lot of funk to the sound of the faster tracks, which makes for a more interesting listening experience than some of Lennox's other albums. She mixes it up fairly well, repackaging agonizing sentiments with easygoing, upbeat music. And that's sometimes what saves the songs. For example, the poetics of "Loneliness" could be overwhelming and depressing with lines like "Loneliness / Is a place that I know well / It's the distance between us / And the space inside ourselves / And emptiness... / Is the chattering in your head / It's the call of the living / and the race from life to death . . . / Filling in the time my dear / Tryin' to find the place where I belong." Lennox negotiates the emotional turmoil by throwing in guitars and making the sound more of an anthem, causing the listener to resist the loneliness as opposed to a ballad that would immerse the listener in it. In other words, "Loneliness" becomes about the struggle out of loneliness instead of the immersion in it because of the music behind the vocals.

Unfortunately for the listener, it is followed by "The Saddest Song I've Got," which is a depressing ballad. And it works amazingly for that!

That's what keeps me listening to this album, even though it hasn't been grabbing me the way I hoped it would. Unlike so much music I have listened to lately, especially my Elvis Presley run recently, Bare is musically interesting and aurally complicated, even if some of the lyrics make me cringe even after multiple listens.

I ultimately decided to recommend this album, without a cointoss, and what threw it over was the vocals. Wow. On songs like "The Saddest Song I've Got," Lennox has a clear alto voice that is powerful and expressive and not produced. Yes, we hear Annie Lennox's voice and she has the pipes to emote beautifully while singing. She is haunting on "Erased" where she explores the higher ranges of her voice and she opens the album well with her own accompaniment on "A Thousand Beautiful Things" and the poppy "Pavement Cracks."

Lennox's voice is the glue that binds the moody lyrics to the often incongruent musical accompaniment. She negotiates the emotions of the lines with the sound of the instrumentals and puts together songs that might be a lot better separately than they are back to back on Bare.

And perhaps this album is better than I am considering it to be. Perhaps in a few years, I will revisit this one and knock it up a star. But that day is not here now and it's a tough sell, even with my love of Annie Lennox. Anyone who loves a strong female voice will find something to like from Bare. But those of us for whom lyrics are integral and we want to be surprised and intrigued and hear something other than nursery rhyme quality rhyme schemes, Bare is suffering.

That said, this album still contains songs that are better than at least 90% of the music that is on the radio today.

The best track is probably "Loneliness" (yes, I'm responding suddenly to the undercurrent of optimism in it) and the weak track is Twisted, which is playing now and I still don't think has left an impression on me.

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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