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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Savage: Annie Lennox's Darkest Hour

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, together known as Eurythmics, were undoubtedly the most prolific popstars in the 1980s, they managed to record seven studio albums between 1981 and 1989, as well as a soundtrack album and four major world tours. By 1987 they were riding the wave of huge commercial success and stadium adulation, yet their next album would be borne out of near exhaustion and the first cracks in their usually close working relationship. Instead of working together on material in their normal manner, Dave recorded most of the music for their sixth album and handed it to Annie on cassette. At first she couldn't connect with what she heard, until finally "an explosion of words and creativity" helped Annie shape the dark, complex and totally brilliant Savage.


Anyone only familiar with Eurythmics' singles might mistakenly think they were a distinctly commercial act, but anyone who has heard their albums, particularly their early ones, knows they are among the most experimental and creative forces British pop has produced. Those expecting Savage to be filled with radio-friendly ditties and stadium rockers no doubt had a rude awakening when they heard the first single. Beethoven (I Love To Listen To) hits like a fever dream, slapping the listener across the face, then grabbing them by the shoulders and giving them a good shake. It begins with a thumping beat, then the chorus is slowly built up from its constituent parts. Suddenly we are engaged in conversation with a woman who is sharing her innermost thoughts, moving from stranger to lover as her paranoia emerges. You realise the splintered voices all belong to the same woman who is becoming increasingly unhinged. A burst of laughter mid-song is perhaps the most unsettling moment in any pop song ever. You start looking over your shoulder to check Annie's not creeping up behind you. It is without doubt the weirdest and most wonderful pop single ever made.


To accompany the album, Eurythmics asked Sophie Muller to make a video album (remember them) and the film for Beethoven (I Love To Listen To) is as striking and sublime as the song. Annie starts off as a suburban housewife with a brown shoulder-length bob, blousy and repressed, and we see her tormented by a young blonde girl who undoes the housework she is frantically doing. At her breaking point Annie seems to allow the young demon child to take possession of her and she transforms into a similarly blonde temptress, all torn tights and PVC dress, who struts out of the house and off into town. Annie's performance is totally compelling and underlines her acting skills as she completely inhabits both housewife and seductress. If you've never seen it, head over to YouTube right now. Amazing, isn't it?

The mixed emotions that Annie and Dave apparently felt about success and its physical and mental toll is apparent on the deceptively jolly Do You Want To Break Up? Although the song is no doubt about a fictional couple, on some level it feels like Annie is challenging Dave about the future of the band, with the stark lyrics contrasted against a bouncy sing-a-long melody. Despite tasting success in their previous band The Tourists when their cover of Dusty Springfield's I Only Want To Be With You made the top ten, little could have prepared Annie for the tidal wave of fame she would ride after their breakthrough hit Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) thrust Annie's voice and image centre stage. Annie has said that when she performs she wears a mask and she did this quite literally early on. Her shock of red hair and her teasing androgyny ensured Annie became the poster child for cutting edge female artists in the MTV Age.



Like many artists, Annie has suffered through periods of emotional fragility and has been able to channel that into her music. Non-stop recording and touring for six years would challenge the most robust person and it is clear to read on Savage that this period of ├╝ber-fame had left Annie with some things to get off her chest. This alchemical ability to change darkness to beauty is realised most staggeringly on You Have Placed A Chill In My Heart, my favourite Eurythmics song and among the most genuinely heartaching songs ever written. Annie decodes love, listing its facets, from the spiritual to the everyday reality and sets out clearly what love has cost her. She finds the strength to leave that love behind and in the analysis realises all she really wants is someone to hold. It is stark and haunting and Annie's vocal is at times imperial, at others aching; the way she breaks the song down in its final moments requires a standing ovation. Sophie Muller produced yet another stunning video with Annie again inhabiting the housewife character, this time having a meltdown in a supermarket, while "real" Annie is lost in the desert, seeking her soulmate. When released as the final single from the album it deservedly became its biggest hit and is still part of Annie's live repertoire.

The album's second single, Shame, faltered just outside the top 40, which seems impossible given it is by far the most radio-friendly track on the album. It must have suffered the aftershock from the mainstream audience reaction to its predecessor. The song pours scorn on those that see love as a passing fashion, it should really have been played at Kim Kardashian's wedding. Again it disguises a dark message within a glorious upbeat melody, it really is the Eurythmic's mega-hit that got away.


Annie's blonde seductress alter-ego gets her big break on the album's true anthem, the raucous I Need A Man. At face value this may seem to be a simple plea for a honest-to-goodness, red-blooded hunk of a man to satisfy Annie's pressing needs and indeed it is available to enjoy on that level. I like to think though that given Annie's approach to gender as an artist, there is something else going on here. Annie's over-sexualised, almost drag look on the single sleeve and in another stunning video provides a visual counterpart to this idealised macho man, the super-femme woman. It's also clear from the blistering bridge that Annie's needs are beyond a basic Y chromosome. The man Annie needs doesn't play games, isn't obsessed with money, won't cheat on her and is courageous. In other words this song isn't about sex or gender roles at all, it's about honesty. That said, who doesn't love to play the vamp and sing along to this one at home. Oh, just me then? I believe you.

The album ends with two songs that sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. The awesome acoustic I Need You comes as blast of fresh, if freezing air after the electronic complexity of the rest of the album. Annie's lyrics are the harshest she has ever written: "I need you to really feel the twist of my back breaking, I need someone to listen to the ecstasy I'm faking". She takes the trite lovers' plea "I need you" and twists it beyond recognition. The laughter of the crowd as Annie bares her soul is deeply troubling. After all the trials Annie has submitted herself to on the album, it feels as if the darkness has won. Then, like a shining light the album closer Brand New Day arrives to rescue her (and us). There is hope at the end of this tunnel and Annie steps out into the rising sunlight to welcome it. The song starts a capella, gradually giving way to a twinkling, shiny resolution. Having lead us through the darkness, Dave and Annie safely return us to the light.


Savage may not be the most commercially successful Eurythmic's album, but it is their artistic triumph. Although not a true concept piece, despite the attempts at narrative in the video album, there is the sense of a clear journey being taken here, a working out of issues and a resolution found. The songs may not always provide instant gratification, but dedication is rewarded with a richness of experience and a longevity that few pop albums accomplish. Annie was channelling some particularly strong demons on this album and expressed them vocally and visually in a way she has never bettered in my opinion. This may have been a band at the point of exhaustion, but it is also a band at the height of their creative powers. Savage (I Love To Listen To).

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