No matter who we are in this absurd, brief and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we freakin’ delivered the goods.
Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds“, our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.
*”That’s Their Pet Sounds”is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.
Time to undress your soul….
Annie Lennox’s Best Album: Bare (2003)
Background: Diva. The title of the first Annie Lennox solo album post Eurythmics, in 1992, served as both a knowing wink and a declaration. It was an earnest, over the top, icy pop opera in an enormous red feathered headdress…and the sound of a door being kicked open hard. Diva’s dramatic tear inducing balladry and forthright, face-slapping funkiness, introduced the world to a bigger and bolder sounding Annie Lennox than had ever been heard before. The album was straight up piece of pop theater, running the gamut from heart-wrenching hymns (“Why”, “Cold”) to chilly beat-ed groovers (“Precious”,“Money Can’t Buy It”) to glossy pop anthems (“Walking On Broken Glass”,“Little Bird”). Diva was (and remains) an undeniably glamorous piece of ’90s pop art. It also kicked ass in a conventional business sense, spawning a handful of hits (all with lustrous video accompaniment), achieving multi-platinum sales and ultimately earning itself a couple of prestigious industry awards ( including the 1993 Brit Award for Album of the Year), as well as a veritable avalanche of critical acclaim in the press…all of which is a roundabout way of saying that after Diva ( and Eurythmics) the only direction to go was down.
This album is very, very good…
Annie Lennox’s next solo album, 1995’s Medusa was an immaculately sung, cleverly chosen collection of covers, pristinely produced by Stephen Lipson who had also been at the helm for Diva. On paper, the thought of Annie taking on beauteous tracks by The Blue Nile, Al Green and Neil Young sounded positively edible. The reality turned out be, well, not so much. And to be clear, when it was first announced, I literally could not wait to hear it. I was a total fan and wanted nothing more than to have my mind blown by it’s interpretive genius, for it to be 4 star magnificent.
While the album’s first single “No More I Love You’s” was a brilliant pop song by any standard, there was something oddly cold and clinical about the general execution of everything else. Beyond the aforementioned “No More…”, there were a couple of standouts ( Blue Nile’s “Downtown Lights” and Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” are both pretty winning) but in light of what had come before, Medusa was straight up disappointing. Unsurprisingly, reviews of the album ranged from lukewarm to outright savage, from one calling it “microwaved” to another describing it’s contents as “wan, deracinated renditions of rock, soul and singer/songwriter classics”. When a ridiculously arcane word like “deracinated” is being thrown around in a pop review, you know you’re in trouble.
“The lover speaks about the monsters…”
In retrospect, Medusa is okay, it’s just not great. And despite the astronomical success it ultimately enjoyed, selling 6 million copies and landing at #1 in the UK album charts, in terms of unadulterated goodness, it wouldn’t even rank in the top 3 of Annie Lennox albums. The fact is,”No More…” aside, Annie’s finest cover work didn’t happen within the walls of Medusa at all but rather came in the form of one-offs that were either part of live performances or contributions to compilations. Her smokin’ live cover of The Detroit Emeralds 1971 R & B classic “Feel The Need in Me” and magnificently sensuous take on The Sugarcubes insane deep cut “Mama“, for example, both crush the majority of Medusa into microscopic dust.
I mean just, damn…
The next Annie Lennox solo album, Bare, didn’t arrive until 2003, 8 full years after it’s predecessor. To use Joni Mitchell albums as a gage, let’s just say that while Diva is the Court and Spark style, full blown “this is who I am now, deal with it ” pop adventure, Bare is all kinds of Blue. It featured 11 songs of what can only be described as “joyful despair” and, as Annie’s marriage of 12 years ended shortly before it’s release, is frequently characterized as The Official Annie Lennox Divorce Album ™. While that event certainly colored it’s lyrical content that description is pretty reductive. The songs on Bare are so broad and big picture that unless you knew about the divorce before you heard it you wouldn’t necessarily make that specific association upon listening to it. Annie weighed in on this perception in a 2007 interview with The Denver Post, regarding the songs:
“They’re from my perspective. But they’re not specific about any individual. They’re always rather generic. I start off with one line and piece the whole thing together. People say, ‘Bare is your divorce album.’ There’s no question, obviously, unfortunately, of the background of my personal life. It comes from that place of tremendous difficulty. But I wouldn’t title it my divorce album specifically.“
She expounded further to Associated Press that same year:
“My songs are really about human condition, a feeling of polarity, confusion, beauty, sadness, despair, love, unrequited love.These (are) historical human issues that people have been writing about … to come to terms with their own inner landscape.“
While Bare landed in the Top 5 of both the U.K. and U.S. charts, it wasn’t home to any actual pop chart mega-hits. Or rather it was and it wasn’t. 2 of it’s tracks ( “A Thousand Beautiful Things” and “Pavement Cracks”) were subsequently remixed, injected with extra BPM’s and sent on their way to the top of the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart ( yes, that’s it’s real freakin’ name). But to be clear, while they are fun distractions they aren’t really relevant to discussions of the actual album; they are, for all intents and purposes, outliers and don’t appear on the album proper. Okay, time to get real Bare…
Bare bear, hell yehr…
Why it’s her Pet Sounds: Bare is not a party album. It’s a lush, synthetic, soulful 48 minute pop music mind reading session that while home to a lot of sadness ( even the uptempo tracks) also has a genuine thread of hopeful wonder running through it. It eloquently expresses the stuff you haven’t been able to organize into coherent sentences while reassuringly confessing it’s just as fucked up and confused as you are.
There was a message featured on the sleeve of Bare, explaining why Annie chose the image she did for the album cover. Here’s an excerpt:
This album contains songs that are deeply personal and emotional. In a sense I have “exposed” myself through the work to reveal aspects of an inner world which are fragile. Broken through experience, but not entirely smashed. I am not a young artist in their early twenties. I am a mature woman facing up to the failed expectations of life and facing up to “core” issues. I don’t want to represent myself visually in some kind of clinched, airbrushed, saccharine kind of way. I want to reveal myself as I am. For me, this is a powerful and courageous statement. I have never been known to “toe the safety line”. In terms of how I represent myself as an artist, I need to be authentic…To take risks…To break the mould when necessary. The image is timeless, genderfree, and racially ambiguous.
Okay, I know that all sounds painfully serious but to be clear, while Bare is a genuinely heartfelt piece of art, it is also a freakin’ pop record. And it’s heart-squeezing, soul-flaying messages are presented in the shiniest paper imaginable. Nearly every song is equipped with an enormously sticky hook and chorus no matter if it’s a mournful ballad or a big fat groove. It is full of ostentatious bridges that are literally songs unto themselves and virtuosic ad-libbing in nearly every coda ( both longtime Lennox trademarks and never showcased more impressively than on Bare). The album travels at a pretty consistent speed limit with fewer of the jagged, whiplash inducing style and tempo changes common on Diva ( bless it’s runny mascara). It’s an emotional pinball machine, with sad lyrics attached to brazenly optimistic melodies, an 11 round boxing match between the notion that life is both a treasure and that it sometimes totally sucks, with both emotions often on display within the same damn song. And oh yeah, the vocal performances are stunning.
In a 2011 interview with High Profiles, Annie elaborated on Bare’s sound and inspiration:
“It’s very stripped and very raw. There’s no extraneous artifice – it’s the opposite of Diva. I mean, the thing is that life is full of polarities and contradictions. You know, we just want it to be all good, or all fabulous, or all this or – and it’s as if we are afraid of the fact that we are full of contradictions all the time. We don’t want to be – we want to be solid and it all to be kind of explicable, and the fact is that it’s not. That’s human nature.”
The Songs: The opening track on Bare ” A Thousand Beautiful Things” acts as something of a mission statement for the rest of the album, perfectly expressing that aforementioned emotional polarity Annie was talking about . With it’s supremely delicate orchestral backing shimmering and glistening from every angle, it’s a world weary, big picture exhortation to fly the plane a little higher, to appreciate and absorb beauty in whatever form it takes ( even the act of breathing itself)…or to at least know it’s there when your are feeling like trash. It’s a hymn, it’s a salve and it’s one of the greatest songs in the entire Annie Lennox canon…and it makes for a pretty powerful and prescient listen these days. Bare initially came with a bonus disc that included an interview and a couple of live acoustic performances of it’s tracks including “A Thousand Beautiful Things”. Take a look and listen below. It is ridiculously good.
…also, rock star.
“Pavement Cracks” is a plush, bouncing “Little Bird” style groove about feeling utterly lost, that offers no resolution…but it’s tempered by one of those classic, insanely euphoric Lennox bridges which despite the fact that it’s closing line is “Give me the strength to live “, sounds threatening, like she’s pushing the great spirit up against a wall and giving it an ultimatum…which is pretty f-ing cool.
The video for “Pavement Cracks” features Annie walking the lonely, overcast city, acting out the songs solitary sadness, looking like the world’s coolest hit-woman to which I say, life goals.
“Don’t give me no more of that hurtin’ stuff, haven’t I already paid enough?” Okay, let’s talk about “The Hurting Time”. It is the longest song on Bare, running nearly 8 minutes. It’s got an incredibly ostentatious keyboard running through it that resembles both a melodica and a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo and really, really wants you to pay attention to it. And while it features the most languorous of melodies, the pain escalates with every passing verse. The conventionally structured part of the song ends after about 5 minutes and the rest of space is filled with transcendent vocal ad-libbing (and Annie slow dancing/making peace with the bossy keyboard). The song closes with an echoing refrain; “tellitlikeitis, tellitlikeitis, tellitlikeitis”. It is holy f*ck good and the sleeper classic of Bare.
What is the deal with these bridges ? I wish every bridge on Bare was an actual song and not just the eye of a hurricane, jeezus. With it’s honeyed, yearning melody “Honestly” sounds like a Eurythmics outtake circa 1989’s We Too Are One and frankly would have made for a pretty sweet single. From it’s subject matter (unrequited love, which is the garlic that makes pop songs taste good) to its cleverly compelling vocal arrangement, it has Top 10 hit written all over it.
While it’s easy to be deceived by it’s languid melody, and joyfully raucous bridge, “Wonderful”, with it’s tale of pain and rapture living as roommates is a total heartbreaker. Also, the vocal performance is transcendently good…to take it a step further, please check out this live take of the song from 2003…
“Does it feel cold baby, does it feel hot?”…definitely hot.
Ready for some f*ck you songs ? Yeah you are. Bare is home to not 1, but 2 but straight up f-you songs. The culprits, “Bitter Pill” and “Erased” are both angry insistent little grooves, nasty pop barnacles where Annie isn’t having it anymore. As such both feature appropriately assertive vocals and declarations of separation that are not remotely coy or wistful:
I’m gonna put it all behind me
Like nothing ever happened between us
Nothing ever took place between you and me…
Nothin’ ever happened
And if you see me walkin’ down the street
I won’t even recognize you
I’ll just erase you from my memory
Put it all behind me
Because you are erased
Got that ? Erased.
While “Twisted” comes from the same sonic homestead as both “Bitter Pill” and “Erased” with the tune itself resembling a less sinister, more uplifting version of Depeche Mode’s “Walking In My Shoes”, the song is more reflective in it’s sentiments, acknowledging the bad behavior on both sides… but still forthright as hell. The brief bridge has a bit of a Cocteau Twins flavor and the coda is just all kinds of groovy with 4 different Annie’s doing their own wondrous, independent things.
“Loneliness” might be the most polarizing track on Bare due it’s unmistakable stadium anthem flavor, all big guitars, drum risers and late ’80s style epic-ness. That said, it’s doesn’t upset the flow of Bare and it’s busting open the balcony windows feel provides a rousing, noisy slap in the face and not unwelcome opportunity for (polite) fist pumping.
Yes, “The Saddest Song I’ve Got” and “Oh God (Prayer)” are genuinely sad. With it’s lean, memorable melody “Saddest” is the marginally more “cheerful” of the 2 tracks. Featuring a regal and straightforward vocal with no showy runs or ornate ad-libs, “Saddest…” is an ethereal, no frills ballad on the stasis of heartbreak and heartache. And so, yes very sad…but despite it’s title, not the saddest. That honor belongs to Bare’s closing track “Oh God (Prayer)”. The combination of the cracking, quavery vocal on the track and the vulnerability of it’s words make for a jarring listen. Yet hearing the behemoth Lennox voice and faith in such a fragile state is actually the most logical and perfect way to close things out on Bare. After an album’s worth of such ballsy, assertive and virtuosic power wailing and intensive soul baring what could even be left in the tank? Nothing. It’s all out there. Bare has raged with everything it has at the mirror and other people, now it’s the time to take it up with the spirit. It’s why “Oh God” could only be the last song.
“That is everything I have to say…”
In Conclusion: Bare is eloquent and noble sadness mixed with sugar. It’s tear-inducing but oddly reassuring and comforting. A showcase of sloppy emotion and existential bewilderment. It’s a bit of a slow burn. It might even take a few listens before it fully infiltrates your heart as a singular entity. It uses 2 of it’s absolute sweetest pieces of candy to get you in the door (“A Thousand Beautiful Things” and “Pavement Cracks”) then kind of sneakily chips away at your heart as it unfolds. It’s as empathetic and honest as a pop record can possibly be. It’s broken and endlessly beautiful.
In a 2005 interview with The Guardian Annie Lennox said:
“There are certain things that have happened in my life that have been difficult. But am I tragic? I don’t think I am. I think I’m quite noble actually. I think I’m a warrior, to be frank. I get up in the morning and face the day, whatever it takes…I would hope I’ve been a bit of an elegant survivor.”
And so, to all you elegant survivors, this one’s for you.