Saturday, September 8, 2012

Songs Of Mass Destruction, Not The Perfect Album I'd Hoped For!

The Good: Most of the lyrics, Most of the vocals, Moments of instrumentation
The Bad: A few predictable lyrics, Not as dark as I'd hoped
The Basics: Songs Of Mass Destruction is a good, but not great, endeavor from Annie Lennox at a time when we are desperate for great and anthemic.

In the last hours before I went to see and review Prince Caspian (reviewed here!) and then began work on a new novel - a graduation gift for a friend - I decided I wanted to write a significant review. Given how much I have been looking forward listening to the first new compact disc I've bought in months, Songs Of Mass Destruction, by Annie Lennox, I decided that would suffice!

Songs Of Mass Destruction caps off my reviews of the complete works of Annie Lennox as a solo artist, which was not that hard to do considering she only has four albums as a solo performer (at least at the time she released this album!). Perhaps as important, Songs Of Mass Destruction fulfills Lennox's contractual obligation to her record company, which means Sony is likely to release some form of "Best Of" album and Lennox is likely to go off in her own, unique direction from this point. This, of course, is an intriguing idea to those of us who have a love of Lennox because she remains one of the most fiercely independent musical artists on the planet. Who knows what she will come up with next?

All I know in this regard is this: I went into Songs Of Mass Destruction blind. I had read no reviews, heard no songs, not even a lick of a song from it before popping the disc in and doing a pure, first listen. I had wonderful ideas based on the cover art and track listing and frankly, I was ready to be wowed. It has been so long since I listened to an album and thought on the first listen, "That was a perfect album!" As it stands, it has taken me two days of listening to this disc straight - I'm on listen number nine now - to get me up to where I would rate this four stars, instead of three.

With eleven tracks, clocking in at 46:51, Songs Of Mass Destruction is a rather pure work by Annie Lennox. All songs were written and performed by Lennox, save a rap in "Womankind," and the vocal accompaniment she received for "Sing," a track geared toward raising money to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa which features twenty-three prominent female artists. Outside that, though, Lennox performs the keyboards and pianos and all of the other vocals. As well, she speaks with admiration about working with producer Glen Ballard, so this might well be one of the best expressions of the mind and art of Annie Lennox.

I'm feeling terribly greedy all of a sudden, but I guess I wanted more. Here's the thing; the cover has Lennox in a Cheron & Styx type image and the song titles include "Dark Road," "Smithereens," "Through The Glass Darkly," "Lost" and "Ghosts In My Machine." I was ready for everything to be big and dark, anthemic and moody. I think I was looking forward to hearing an album that was thematically unified and grand on a scale unlike what I had heard from Lennox before. I wanted Lennox's own Be Here Now (reviewed here!) because while others may have thought that album was too big and anthemic, Lennox seems pretty much due for an album that is huge and operatic. This is not that, though, and it's hard not to feel a little cheated about that when the album begins with exactly that type of track. "Dark Road" is exactly the moody, intense, and wonderful track that would make Songs Of Mass Destruction live up to its title.

As it stands, the album is almost too diverse for its own good and that leaves the listener feeling cheated. Instead of unified, anthemic and dark, the songs range from quiet ballads ("Fingernail Moon") to moody pop-rock ("Dark Road") to female empowerment rock ("Sing") to straight-out operatic ("Through The Glass Darkly"). The album has various musical styles from Lennox's pretty standard keyboard-driven tracks - as on "Smithereens" - to a more cajun flavor, as she has on "Ghosts In My Machine."

What unifies Songs Of Mass Destruction, then is the quality of the lyrics and the vocals of Annie Lennox. As with most of Lennox's works, Songs Of Mass Destruction is a collection of quality auditory poems, written by Lennox herself. Take the opening track, "Dark Road," which quickly establishes a mood that is mysterious, full of longing and deep with mood that the typical pop-rock track does not have. Lennox soulfully sings, "It's a dark road / And a dark way that leads to my house / And the word says / You're never gonna find me there oh no / I've got an open door / It didn't get there by itself . . ." ("Dark Road") and those last two lines, with all they imply as opposed to make explicit, are so much smarter than 90% of what is on the radio these days. Lennox is a clever lyricist, making effortless lines that intrigue the listener and force multiple listens.

As well, she has a higher level of diction than most singer-songwriters working in the pop-rock field these days. Moreover, she uses - generally - more complicated lines and rhymes than the typical artist who is desperate for popularity, perhaps because Lennox is not so desperate. This comes through clearly when she sings lines like, "So don't make me sad / I couldn't stand to watch you fall / 'Cause everybody has a tender heart / Remember this / I didn't mean to break it down to smithereens" ("Smithereens"). Even when she uses more simple language, Lennox is able to emote wonderfully.

As well, she establishes a strong sense of imagery when she wants to. Annie Lennox has a great ability to sing a musical painting, creating an emotional landscape and inspiring the listener to paint an accompanying image with lines like, "Bright lights / Come and go / Playin' blues songs on my radio / Shadows still appear in the house tonight . . .Ghosts that come in from the past / All those ghosts that keep on comin' back / Sliding through the walls / And my windows . . . When I'm with you / The nights are cold and long . . ." ("Through The Glass Darkly").

Of course, some of the encouragement with the mental images comes with the evocation of the lines; Lennox's vocal performances which resonate in the listener's mind. Annie Lennox has one of the most powerful and distinct alto voices working the industry today. Hers is one of the few voices one might be able to pick out of an auditory line-up, just as Madonna's is on the chorus of "Sing."

But Annie Lennox is not content to stay safe on Songs Of Mass Destruction. Here, she stretches into the soprano range on bits in "Smithereens" and goes lower and more soulful on tracks like "Ghosts In My Machine." She has tremendous range and she uses it rather well on this album. In other words, Lennox is not simply showing off that she can sing and has great range, she is presenting that range as part of expressing the thoughts and sentiments behind the lines she has written and it works beautifully to sell the listener on the album.

As well, the musical diversity works all right, once my expectations were changed from listening to the album. Songs Of Mass Destruction has a lot of female empowerment ("Womankind" and "Sing") and a strong sense of pragmatism and the idea of overcoming obstacles. As a result, many are likely to be drawn to it as an album that is more optimistic than it might appear from its title and cover art. But those looking for moody, those drawn in from the first single, which is magnificent, are likely to be a little disappointed as the album does not have the thematic unity of Bare or create a concept like the title might suggest.

That said, it is a solid album qualitatively and anyone looking for something different from a pop-rock album will likely enjoy getting their fix here. It is smart, energetic and clever in ways that musical artists seldom achieve, especially these days. A must for anyone looking for a great album from a strong, feminine voice.

The best track is the moody and sensual "Lost" and the low point is the more nebulous "Big Sky."

For other works by Annie Lennox, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Little Bird (single)


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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