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Annie Steps Forward, posted October 4, 2007 at 01:57 AM

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The first striking feature of Annie Lennox's new Songs of Mass Destruction--assuming you take great song-writing and unbelievable vocals as a given for any album of hers--is that she's gone and gotten herself a new producer. Glen Ballard has taken the best aspects of Annie's two other long-standing producers, Dave Stewart and Stephen Lipson, and combined them into a fresh, lively mix where the vocals stand out from everything else and everything else seems to be pushing and punching forward to propel the vocals even farther forward in the mix. It's a fantastically energetic album--the up-tempo songs rock and the ballads simmer or cool but never sit stagnant. I am thrilled to say that there isn't a bad track in the group, and songs of this quality deserve a blow-by-blow review.

Dark Road starts the album with an opening move Annie's given us before: deep emotionalism that starts quietly, then builds to to fever pitch (see "Why" as Diva's opener...). The melody meanders up and down her considerable vocal range, and as the lyrics and multi-tracked vocals explode into desperate pleading ("I want to learn to live again"), Lennox's melody takes over from the lyrics altogether, leaving her with crying "Hey hey hey"--until she reins in the emotion to land with a quivery, delicate ending of restraint.

Love Is Blind is a stomper, a rocker, and it bleeds with cynicism and bitterness. When Lennox starts with "Oh Sugar, when you gonna come?" you know she's gonna go to that place where you're wrecked at the end (see "You Hurt Me (and I Hate You)" on Eurythmics' We Too Are One). Her call-and-response verses build into choruses of frustration, which burst into raucous chants, the first of which rips the song open:
I got so much trouble getting into this
Can't decide if it's hell or bliss
Sometimes I feel like I don't exist
Cut my veins and slit my wrists
Goodbye goodbye that's all she wrote
And she tied that knot around her throat
Wipe my eyes, dry my tears
I'll wait for you for a thousand years

By the times she gets through the next chorus something finally breaks in her head and she becomes a madwoman repeating herself to such distraction that finally the driving bass, pounding drums and gripping synths simply stop in the middle of her repeating six times "Tired of being so screwed up so screwed up so screwed up so screwed up so screwed up so screwed up." It's killer, and I can't wait to hear this one live!

Next comes what's for me the most surprising bit of song-writing she's ever done. Perhaps it's the arrangement, or the universal quality of the lyrics, but Smithereens sounds to me like an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song. From the piano opening, to the soaring mid-tempo choruses, to the quiet pause two-thirds of the way through which a drum break turns back into the chorus, everything about the song is classic. "I heard your crying, I learned the story / I saw the shadows behind the past / They fall behind you and creep up slowly / We're only human behind the mask." And then a boop-a-doo string-along vocal middle-eight before that pause and recap of the chorus. Cameron Crowe will put this one in a movie ten years from now.

Patsy's favorite is Ghosts in My Machine. Picking the tempo back up, Annie's not content to have a rollicking accordion pumping a work-out heartbeat, she's gotta drop a deep blues vocal line wailing on top of it--"Oh COOOOOOOOME and take this pain away!" She's too much, as in
I think too much
I do too much
I fall too much
I fail too much
I cry too much
I die too much
I'm haunted by the ghosts in my machine...

And as to the value of a good producer, let it be said that not one of the songs on this CD fades out. The arrangements are purposeful--like the accordion foundation of this song--and they all wrap themselves up smartly. No ad nauseam repeats of limp choruses here. Thank god for that. Thanks, Annie.

Every mention of Womankind I've read in other reviews speaks of it as if it's a feminist anthem. And while it's true this album is more political than anything Lennox has done before, and it does indeed mention "womankind" in three or four songs, and there is a feminist anthem later, this song simply isn't what it's being pitched as by the media. Unless a feminist ode to womankind is about needing a man to be yours forever, or about being rescued, or being tired of waiting for that, then this isn't a feminist anthem. As far as I can hear, this a crisp, catchy pop song that makes the most of vocal quirks, harmonies, and Annie's instinct to layer various vocal lines in varying voices all over the mix. It's also a nod to contemporary pop by including a rapped middle-eight with featured rapper Nadirah X. Annie joins in for a few lines. Don't laugh--she's sounds fierce!

Through the Glass Darkly is more classic Annie than anything else so far. It would fit on the lush arrangements of Diva or in the squinting pain of Bare. But she's doing something different with her voice on this album, and on this song it's noticeably raw, open, and energetic. The production--full of reverb--makes the most of the jazz-rhythm phrasing and the melismatic "yeah yeahs." There's also something that I can't put my finger on that makes me think of early Eurythmics--the slow songs on Touch.

Lost is one of the few tracks where Ballard allows Annie's voice to fall back in the mix--but only behind a swirling, dissonant multi-tracking of more of her voice. At moments that choir of Annies are saying things in the background that she's not saying the main melody--like on Bare's "Honesty"--but all mixed up to the point of it being indecipherable. She takes this one out quietly, humming the last chorus.

Okay, Colored Bedspread is one of the most complicated songs. It's opening synth immediately recalls Eurythmics, but before you get all nostalgic let me say that this song has more in common with Madonna and Moby than Eurythmics. Or, well, I think it points to how influential Eurythmics' music has actually been since the early 1980s. This swirling, sparkling electronic arrangement recalls those Madonna songs on Ray of Light where her slow fluid vocal line never quite catches up with those sparkles of the arrangement. Not to mention that Annie's using a vocorder for some of the backgrounds. And the lyric is a mystical, sensual mediation on what might be happening on or under that bedspread, again in a manner more reminiscent of Everything But THe Girl's Temperamental album than the early Eurythmics tracks people are pointing to in other reviews. So while I think there's a root influence of very early Eurythmics here, I don't think Annie's ever written a song quite like this one.

Speaking of Madonna, are you ready for the feminist anthem? When I first read about it, I thought Sing sounded like a potential cringe-inducer. It's a benefit song a la We Are The World, with an all-star choir, to draw attention to a major African issue--in this case mother-to-child transmission of HIV. All the ladies show up for the sing-along--Dido, CÚline Dion, Melissa Etheridge, Fergie, Beth Gibbons, Faith Hill, Angelique Kidjo, Beverley Knight, Gladys Knight, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, Beth Orton, Pink, Bonnie Raitt, Shakira, Shingai Shoniwa, Joss Stone, Sugababes, KT Tunstall, Martha Wainwright, and yes, Madonna (who takes the second verse). I hope you like it as much as I do, because when it's released as a single in December, you're gonna hear it everywhere.

Big Sky is a slow burn. It grinds away until it ignites and takes flight. Again this woman's vocal range is put to the test, and again she soars into that big sky on wings of classic soul. I read that VHI recently declared Annie Lennox "the greatest living white soul singer," and this song carries that torch a long way up into the ether. She whoops and hollers, swoops back down for another chorus, then breaks like a wave over the final 60 seconds, letting her soul fly free even though she's singing of falling:
Won't you say it isn't so--
Watch me falling
See me falling
I slipped through the vortex of the sky...
Darkness and light--
That's what's inside...

And with Fingernail Moon, Annie Lennox sets us back down. It's a piano ballad featuring the simplest melody of the album. It's a lullaby holding us close. Full orchestral arrangement, lush harmonies, timpanis! And then the thing that makes any song perfect: background vocals saying "ba ba ba ba-da-ba." It's sad and sweet and slows down to gently let us go.

That's it. A perfect 45 minutes. The whole thing is streaming on the album's website, but don't bother. Just go buy it.


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