Listening to her latest album and hearing the delightfully brassy version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo”, it's hard not to wish she'd done an entire recording of gritty blues covers.
Twenty-two years ago Annie Lennox released her first solo album Diva, a recording that successfully forged a disparate identity from the work she had created with Dave Stewart, as one half of '80s synth-pop duo Eurythmics. The album concluded with the 1930s tune "Keep Young and Beautiful", a tart, tongue-in-cheek ode to staying trim and attractive. With lyrics as overtly ironic as the album's title, the effervescent song might have seemed a jarring ending to the record, but it has remained to this day a guilty pleasure. Each subsequent solo album has unveiled different layers of Lennox's fascinating personality, yet there was always something intriguing about that satirical closing track that lingered on long after Diva had ended. It hinted at something more, beyond the guitar and synth-laden landscapes she had previously explored.
Following her 2010 holiday collection A Christmas Cornucopia, Lennox has decided to step upon the stage of a smokey supper club and record an entire album of jazz and blues songs from the '30s, '40s and '50s. Nostalgia is yet another curve ball in a career full of them. Whether the record was the product of writer's block, a self-indulgent detour or an intense labor of love, matters little at this point. Annie Lennox has earned the right to do whatever she wants. Nostalgia is by and large a success, albeit one that plays it a bit too safe.
As of late, Lennox's focus has pivoted towards philanthropy and political activism, which in turn, has overshadowed her musical persona. From recent interviews in the press about feminism and the over-sexualization of female performers, to social media statements on Scottish independence, she has provoked discussions and courted controversy. These opinions have often been misquoted, distorted, and taken completely out of context, prompting a frustrated Lennox to publicly declare that this album might be her very last. She has criticized the mass media, raised awareness for HIV and AIDS, examined the woes of our "celebrity-driven" culture, and been an outspoken proponent of women's rights. It is undeniably refreshing to hear a public figure articulate her thoughts on a variety of crucial issues in such an intelligent and thought-provoking manner. Lennox has lent her voice to others who do not have one. It is a voice that sings, even when there is no melody. This is an artist who truly understands the blues, which is why the song choice of Nostalgia is often puzzling.
Listening to her latest album and hearing the delightfully brassy version of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo", it's hard not to wish she'd done an entire recording of gritty blues covers instead of pleasantly tasteful, orchestral interpretations of standards like "Summertime", "Georgia on My Mind" and "God Bless the Child". Similar to "Keep Young and Beautiful", the track juts out from its surroundings, like a red-headed child in a sea of brunettes. Everything on Nostalgia is impeccably sung, but Lennox appears to be holding back on multiples occasions, and it is on this final track that she sounds like she is kicking off her heels and truly having fun.
Accompanying herself at the piano and Fender Rhodes, Lennox sounds confident throughout, yet seldom does that formidable instrument truly blossom and display the full extent of its beauty. Time and touring have dimmed the brilliance of her upper register, but regardless, it has aged rather well. The mid-tempo pace of the record slows down the momentum and the sameness becomes a bit tedious three-quarters of the way though, screaming for more lively song choices to be scattered amidst the ballads. A lack of variety in tempo aside, there is much to admire here.
Nostalgia features songs made popular by the likes of Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday and Jo Stafford. "I Put A Spell on You" is bewitchingly delicious, fleshing out the seething rage of a narrator who is now holding the reins, and "September in the Rain" is elegantly simple, unadorned with the excessive, syrupy strings so common on the Great American Songbook recordings made by other artists. The accordion that accompanies "I Can Dream, Can't I?" is charming, except for the use of an electric piano substituted for the real thing. The percussion that enters around the two minute mark, briefly recalls some of the arrangements on Bryan Ferry's terrific standards album As Time Goes By. One wishes she had taken a similar route as Ferry and crafted a record that fully explored the joyous sound of the era as well.
Her versions of, "Memphis in June", "Strange Fruit” (Lennox plays flute on the track) and "The Nearness of You" are quite stunning, delivered with a stark, emotional honesty that few of her peers possess. The tasteful vibraphone, brushed percussion and muted trumpet on "I Cover the Waterfront" transport her voice to another time. It is a lovely moment, but once again, something seems a bit off. There is nothing particularly fresh or revelatory about these arrangements, even with Lennox at the mic. Nostalgia is music perfect for enjoying a cup of coffee and an omelet in the morning hours, while slowly waking to the world. Rarely does it command the full attention of the listener and oftentimes it borders on background music, something that Lennox never intended.
Which brings us back to "Mood Indigo". There's a lithe, playful spirit about her interpretation that is sorely missing from the majority of the album as a whole, a record that is perfectly enjoyable without really challenging Lennox or her audience's expectations. Soulful doesn't always equate interesting. The sultry closing track makes one wish that everything preceding it were infinitely more raw, bluesy, or at least as spellbinding as her version of Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" from the 1992 tribute album Red Hot + Blue. The arrangements of Nostalgia rarely burn red hot, which in turn diffuses Lennox's powerful delivery.
She has recently stated that she quit writing songs because she was finally happy. It is disheartening to think that the inspirational fuel for her creativity was being miserable throughout all these years. Everyone deserves a little happiness in their lives and Annie Lennox is no different. When she officially retires, that glorious instrument will be sorely missed. If Nostalgia is her last recording, as she has intimated, it's still one hell of an elegant swan song.