Four albums in 15 years is not exactly prolific when it comes to making records. But Annie Lennox has never been one to rush things, and her recorded output as a solo artist in life after the Eurythmics has been stellar. The last time she issued a recording in 2003 with Bare, a collection of deeply committed emotional songs that set a new standard for her artistically, though they were written in the turmoil following her second divorce. Perhaps the reason she hasn't had the time to record is her activism. She's involved herself in causes that range from her primary concern, raising awareness about AIDS/HIV (and she refers to this in the album's notes), to the environment and poverty. But Songs of Mass Destruction isn't a political album by any means, unless the personal is -- and often it is. This is another album of love songs; dark love songs. These are breakup ballads, statuesque embers of pain and rage that have simmered down to the traces of that dull ache of emptiness that always exists in the aftermath of something profound. The production is characteristically slick, and Lennox is in excellent voice -- it's always startling to hear something new from her simply because that voice is so singular, it becomes a part of the listener no matter what she's signing. Most of what's here is adult-oriented, sophisticated pop. That's nothing to apologize for. The keyboard- and drum-drenched set has all sorts of texture to keep it from being formulaic, such as the accordion on "Ghost in My Machine," which is a rocking number. "Love Is Blind" begins with an acoustic piano and a slide guitar quietly rumbling behind it, though it's a suicide ballad turned inside out. When Lennox opens her mouth, it's all blues scorch wither, letting that big voice wrap itself around some harrowing lines like "I got so much trouble getting in to 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...Can't you see that I'm so addicted/To the notion of a someone/Who could take me from this wretched state/Save me from the bitterness and hatred of humanity/I'm so screwed up." But she's not pleading; she's declaring, testifying with searing honesty. On the track "Sing," she has donated all proceeds to an AIDS charity TAC (Treatment Action Committee) and enlisted a host of women to sing in a choir who will likely not be heard in the same place again: Beth Gibbons, Madonna, Celine Dion, Beth Orton, Angélique Kidjo, Shakira, Sarah McLachlan, Faith Hill, Fergie, Beverley Knight, Martha Wainwright, k.d. lang, Shingai Shoniwa, KT Tunstall, Bonnie Raitt, Dido, Gladys Knight, Anastacia, and Melissa Etheridge. It's another huge feminist anthem, with a killer hook, a big bad soul/gospel refrain, and a beat that, once it gets into the spine, will not be easily dismissed. But the ballads here are as profound and deep as the big production numbers. The opener, with its lilting Celtic flavor, is devastatingly beautiful and sad. "Smithereens," with its languid piano treading so lightly, offers the singer once more bearing heart and soul in a kind of vulnerability that accepts responsibility as well as lays blame: "Behind the victim/Behind the trouble/Of all the things you've not expressed...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." "Womankind" is a funky soul number offering wishes that perhaps many women wish for (though men do too), though its expression of raw need and desire may piss off a few of its intended recipients. The track is a bona fide single, though. It's colored by the exotic ballad "Through a Glass Darkly," looking through the mirror of life in the true self, with its cyclical coming together and splitting apart, which is realized utterly in "Lost." "Coloured Bedspread" revisits the electronic beat pop of the Eurythmics. The skeletal toy-sounding piano and cheap drum machine in "Big Sky" is lifted by the power of Lennox's voice and her backing vocalists before it breaks into big fat warm loops, and Lennox digging deep into her soul book for the melody. Anita Baker, eat your heart out. The set closes with the elegant, complex, and confident ballad "Fingernail Moon," which is sung alone in the emptiness of the night sky, bearing the entirety of disappointment, the smallness of humanity in the universe -- no matter how much we think we're the center of it. The sadness in the song is also confessional and speaks to bewilderment and ultimately becomes a prayer when she sings, "I feel so sad/There's something unsettling under my skin/I don't know the reason or where to begin/Caught in the circles I've found myself in/But I want to reach out and touch you/My sweet sickle moon." Songs of Mass Destruction can be heard as a melancholy part two of Bare, but one feels after repeated listening that Lennox is not only speaking of her own experiences in life and love, but those of her sisters, and the human condition at large, when focused on in the first person, becomes somewhat palatable and embraceable by a third party. It's as gorgeous a collection as Bare, and pop music should be so lucky as to have more of this kind of thing out in the world. She may not be prolific, but she is always profound, and to date has always delivered the very best she's had to offer, which is, in this case, as well as her other recordings, plentiful and magnificent.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo