Sunday, September 16, 2012

Annie Lennox: Diva (1992)


(Arista)

RECOMMENDED

Eurythmics certainly had their moments, although in the grand scheme of boy-girl synthpop duos they were no Yaz, but there was always a nagging suspicion that the immensely talented Annie Lennox was being held back by keyboarding weirdo Dave Stewart. That seems to be confirmed by Diva, an album that -- hearing it today -- I really just want to hug. It's all here, all of the charms of early '90s adult contemporary pop: a buried worldbeat influence, numerous bows and bids for the then-thriving mainstream club music scene, all couched in the standard singer-songwriterly pastiches that here take on a strangely lovable gloss and glow. In much the same way that Leonard Cohen transcended the dated trappings of modern-day pop music by engaging with and burying himself in it, Lennox gains strength from the vagaries of lush soft-porn production: it emphasizes her voice, internalizes the emotion, makes it all somehow more intimate.

And the singing -- which she unmistakably designs as the reason to buy and hear the record -- is as technically staggering as ever, and here is given a red-carpet approach appropriate to the disc's title. After years of being in an alternative rock band that flirted yearningly with the mainstream, Lennox now approximates a grand lady coming out, a star among stars. The charming "Why" is merely a prelude for the kind of contained, urgent peak that the single "Walking on Broken Glass" is -- of course you remember it from the radio and MTV back then, but do you remember how maddening its articulated desires really are? In 1992, there was literally nothing quite like the manner in which the obliquely classicist arrangement builds up and explodes at the chorus, turning what in most songs would be an emotional climax to merely the beginning of a powerful, stirringly suggestive repetition of the title phrase. Lennox owns this moment, and the eccentricity and beauty of that single is unmatched by anything else, save a bonus track included with most copies of the CD: a simple and splendidly evocative version of Dubin-Warren's "Keep Young and Beautiful," the kind of selection that nearly justifies modern pop singers' odd fixation upon covering standards.

Generally, however, Lennox's compositions are powerful and accomplished, even if "Broken Glass" is clearly her best offering (which it remains today). Her songs mostly exist to give her an excuse to wind and wrap her soulful voice around something that will really exercise it, and the beautifully dated production (by, somehow inevitably, Steve Lipson) seems almost designed in advance to afford future nostalgia to the prospective consumer. These keep even the lackluster, or at least fairly ordinary tunes (roughly half) from growing tired. "Stay by Me," just to toss out an example, is a trite nothing on paper, but Lennox makes something out of it, and you end up having a fine time.

So does she, which helps and hurts; the sole shortcoming here in comparison to her work with Eurythmics is that there seemed more mystery then, more pain and more fear -- and clearly, although those records were often ambitious failures (even the group's Greatest Hits has too many duds; only three of their full-length albums offer real consistency), their songs were formed as songs more than showcases and therefore had a bit more sophistication, tempering Lennox's own impulse toward mere recitations of the R&B and soul vocabularies. But maybe reciting the R&B and soul vocabularies is a worthwhile endeavor, though it's hard to know why something as left-field as "Broken Glass" could splash out with nothing to match it.

But by the same token, a greater degree of comfort on the vocalist's part means her work is more assured than ever here, and I'd take "Money Can't Buy It" and the melodically resonant "Cold" over something like the blank-faced radio bid "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." Lennox proves herself capable of rendering dunderheaded phrases ("I believe in the power of creation / I believe in the good vibration" and "I could die here in your arms") either unnoticeable or somehow powerful. The emotional peak, disregarding the aforementioned opening splash, is the international hit "Little Bird," and as much "of its time" as it is, it's a dance cut that still sounds incredibly strong, an utter triumph of hook-filled pop smarts, joyfully sung and married to a perfect beat. It also sounds like a Eurythmics song, more than anything else here, and I'm not sure what that says exactly.

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