It was 1992 and no one quite knew what to expect from seeing Annie Lennox decked out in an elaborate, red-feather headdress on the cover of her solo debut. A few years earlier, she had recorded what was, at the time, her last album with Dave Stewart as Eurythmics, We Too Are One (1989). Even the duo’s new label home at Arista couldn’t salvage the artistic relationship the two shared after more than a decade of recording together. The time to explore solo careers was beckoning, and the thought of any future Eurythmics projects was extinguished.
Then Diva arrived in record stores. The music was just as gripping as the imagery that emphasized the piercing eyes and scarlet red lips of Lennox’s “Diva” character. Producer Stephen Lipson and engineer Heff Moraes helped Annie Lennox craft an exquisite solo piece. There was not one false note, not one word that didn’t seem thoroughly lived and wrought by the singer/songwriter. To this day, it is her defining musical masterpiece.
A good portion of that album appears on The Annie Lennox Collection, the first retrospective of Lennox’s solo career. That “Why” and “Precious” have not aged a bit in 17 years speaks to the superior artistry involved in their production. Likewise, the staccato piano and strings on “Walking on Broken Glass” are still crisp, “Cold” still stops the heart, and “Little Bird” remains an effervescent ode to independence. Though Diva is best absorbed as a complete work, these songs are paragons that emit a luster still seldom seen in the rubric of pop music.
So it is with all the songs on The Annie Lennox Collection. It’s not merely a collection of singles, but an overview of this artist’s exceptional oeuvre. That said, it is not meant to be definitive. There are plenty of other songs that qualify as Lennox’s best that aren’t represented here (“Wonderful” comes immediately to mind). As an entrée to her discography, though, it is flawless, especially because it contains “Love Song for a Vampire”, which she wrote for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and stands as one of her very finest compositions. For many listeners, these songs were significant signposts. For anyone in possession of an Annie Lennox album, The Annie Lennox Collection will certainly conjure specific memories—joyous and sad—while serving to remind you that, as Lennox attests in her liner notes, you have “moved on”.
One of those memories might date back to 1995 when Annie Lennox released Medusa. Like Pegasus, who rose from the slain body of Medusa, the album was powerful yet elegant. While many of those songs were familiar to record-buyers—“I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Take Me to the River”, “Waiting in Vain”—one of them was known to few. Originally recorded by the Lover Speaks in 1986, “No More ‘I Love You’s’” boasts a dramatic vocal performance by Lennox. From the opening “do-be-do-be-do-do-do’s” to the giddy laugh that completes the cycle of catharsis, it’s laden with the qualities that distinguish her as a creative and masterful communicator of other writers’ material.
Motherhood and family life accounted, in part, for the long gap between solo projects. By the time Annie Lennox resurfaced with Bare (2003), she had reunited once with Dave Stewart for Eurythmics’ Peace (1999) album. She had also endured a great deal of personal pain. It’s evident from the lyrics to songs like “Erased” and “Bitter Pill” that much of that pain stemmed from heartache and the break-up of her marriage. Though her outlook was bleak (“Pavement Cracks”), she eventually arrived at a place of gratitude (“A Thousand Beautiful Things”). She made damn good music in the process, giving listeners band-aids to heal their own wounds.
An Oscar win (“Into the West”, Best Original Song 2004) and another Eurythmics reunion (2005) gave way to Lennox’s growing activism in South Africa. Her efforts to educate and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS infections in women and children crystallized in the SING campaign, which she founded in 2007. After working in the field and taking a hands-on approach to create mother-to-child HIV transmission prevention programs, Lennox wrote a song that has since become an anthem for SING. Featuring Pink, Bonnie Raitt, Martha Wainwright, Angelique Kidjo, a solo spot by Madonna, and more than a dozen other female musicians, the spirit of “Sing” is steeped in empowerment. It also incorporates “Jikilele/Globally”, a tune that is performed by a group of HIV/AIDS activists called the Generics who are aligned with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa to advance discussion and education about prevention.
“Sing” was the centerpiece of Songs of Mass Destruction (2007). The focus of the album shifted away, generally, from love and focused on more humanistic concerns. “Dark Road” was the album’s opening statement wherein Lennox sought a kind of spiritual (not religious) renewal even as the “fires of destruction” burned within her. The song climaxed with her exclaiming, “I wanna kick these blues way / I wanna learn to live again”.
The ying to the yang of “Dark Road” is “Shining Light”, one of two new songs recorded for The Annie Lennox Collection. Written by Tim Wheeler from Ash, it’s among the most tuneful songs Annie Lennox has ever lent her voice to over the course of her career. The vigorous arrangement elicits the most joyful of qualities from Lennox, while “Pattern of My Life”, a more contemplative piece written by Keane, spotlights the stridency in her voice. Both songs are estimable additions to her decades-deep catalog.
It appears that Annie Lennox has fulfilled her recording contract with the release of The Annie Lennox Collection. The album couldn’t be more of an appropriate full-stop before she begins the next phase of her career. Like the little bird that fell out of the nest, Annie Lennox long ago put her wings to the test. The Annie Lennox Collection proves that she didn’t just fly, she soared.
// Notes from the Road
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