Wipe Off The Dust: Annie Lennox's 'Diva' At 20

Thursday, December 13, 2012


As someone who admits to wanting their cake and eating it too at times, there are many albums in my collection that are 'deserted island' listens. If ever stranded, I'll probably need two laundry bags and a half to haul all of these particular albums on the island, possibly taking up space, air, and golly knows what. Still the album that will probably be thrown first in the bag is Annie Lennox's Diva from 1992---and naturally so.

Songs In The Key Of Life, Thriller, Rumors, Blue --- albums all pegged as being essentials for anyone who calls themselves musically astute, but Diva doesn't wager in that bracket. Even though it was the big breakout solo moment for the Eurythmics front-woman and was met with high regard, a Grammy nomination for Album Of The Year, and awards upon it's release thanks to singles like "Why", "Walking On Broken Glass", and "Precious" ---Diva rarely gets discussed. For me, it's not necessarily about wanting Diva with that kind of status, it's the kind of album that doesn't need all the frills or the expectant praise to be treasured.

Diva's atmosphere creeps up on you, surprises you with it's attention to detail, poetic lyricism, melancholic messages, and of course, Lennox's contralto vocals which are the most viciously sublime around. In all of it's tongue-in-cheek title, Diva is just a gorgeous album that is orchestrated in such a way that it soothes the savage beast, and is honest in every fiber of it's make-up. The embodiment of honesty this album carries is what kept me afloat many a times while in undergrad --- which was a confusing, difficult, yet rewarding time for me. Yet, with Lennox's words threading through in my ear, alone I wasn't, she got every irk, sneer, smile, tear, and eye-roll I let out during that time, and it woke me literally up to think that for one of the first times, an album actually 'got' me.

Aside from it's lyrical crochet, a massive part of the Diva project is the visuals. During her tenure in the Eurythmics Lennox and co-hort Dave Stewart would bend the rules with artistic visuals that would bring on the theatrics (and a couple of glorious head-scratches). Lennox carries this tradition into her solo career with the video package of Totally Diva. Totally Diva expanded on the ideas of what Diva bestowed, and with director Sophie Muller at the helm directing each video, Lennox's 'personas' from Diva were all visually woven into their proper stories. What is key is most of the visuals for almost all of the tracks are simplistic---it's all facial expressions, costumes, and flair. Yet, Lennox has a way of seducing you with all this, and the results are what make Diva such a well-rounded and classic effort in my book. 


Why


It's pretty simple. Lennox primps in preens as she preps her 'diva' showgirl persona and we're just a fly-on-the-wall to it all. Yet underneath all the garish feathers and stark make-up, the human is there, heartbroken and confused, but still hanging on. Filled with sophisticated angst and longing, "Why" is a track that gets to the core of the heart, rips it out, and puts it on display. Easily 'why' "Why" is one of the finest ballads of the 90's.

Walking On Broken Glass


Even in it's jovial harpsichord flair, "Walking" is nothing but a woeful tale of the jilted lover---and it's awesome. This sort of sweet n' sour trick Lennox has always been able to master in her writing, and it's a trick she rolled over from her days in the Eurythmics---and it's better than ever. Easily the best of the Diva video lot, as it features John Malkovich as Lennox's former squeeze, and Hugh Laurie (hello Dr. House!) as the would-be new suitor and you follow them as they do this crazy lover's triangle waltz in the late 18th century.

Precious


Written for her daughter, Lennox's joy and devotion towards new found parenthood can be heard through this swiveling sophisti-funk number. This song was actually my first introduction to this album, as I had first heard the song in the film Jack & Sarah (really good film) and was in love with it from the start. Lennox re-dons her angel wings in the video and acts at first as a "cynical and twisted" fallen angel, till we see her transform as she recants the refrain, "I was lost until you came"

Legend In My Living Room


Paying homage to Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich and no doubt a nod to her androgyny of the 80's, Lennox dons a hat and tails, and steps into a grainy stage set straight out of the 1930's Hollywood. As a one-woman show, she gives a stirring account of what "living in the dog house means" by weaving a autobiographical tale alluding to her rising stardom and the speed bumps along the way. "Legend" in it's meaty delivery is easily my favorite track on here, and it's video evokes the eerie lounge blues the song embodies.

Cold


"Dying is easy, it's living that scares me"---what a line. Not to negate the album as a whole, but for me the best lyrical nuggets on Diva are housed in the Gospel shiver of, "Cold". Beautifully brutal with a visual that feels as if we're witness into a world if Jane Eyre didn't take her meds, "Cold" is another moment where Lennox abandons privacy and pours it all out.

Money Can't Buy It


How can a video with Lennox in a towel ogling at herself in the mirror be so captivating? I mean, when I wear my towel on my head, I'm just in the middle of a serious conditioning session, and if I rubbed my face around my mirror---I'd get weird looks. For Annie, no, she's being artsy and provocative, and well, she wins. "Money Can't Buy It" is a track that simply soars, and it keeps getting better as the song takes flight. Right down to the random rap about being a 'rich white girl' with diamonds, this song's message is simple: love hasn't a price tag on it.

Little Bird


Lennox's varying looks throughout the years all congregate on a stage and all compete for time in the spotlight in this fun video. Very Caberet inspired, where Lennox tries to reign in all of her personalities into one collective whole but has somewhat lost control. It's pretty silly that this video isn't included on the Totally Diva package as it's another fine video. As for the song, "Little Bird" is wonderfully upbeat and harbors a left-over air of Disco in it's tone all while motivating one out of sorrow and uncertainty to take flight and know that whatever storm you're in, internal or external, that 'this too shall pass'. Easily this is my personal theme song from the album.

Primitive


Quietly thumping on Middle Eastern rhythms, the pensive yet relaxing "Primitive", fits its video perfectly in mood as it features Lennox contemplating and coasting down the Venice, Italy canals. Its one of the more understated, and underrated meditations present on Diva, that is about letting the walls come down when it comes to expressing true human emotion, which is pretty much a theme of the entire album.  

Stay By Me


Oddly there isn't a video for "Stay By Me", still I think this performance at the '92 Montreux Jazz Festival should suffice as it's intent to describe the stumbles and regrets we experience in relationships is still wonderfully expressed through Lennox's pitch-perfect vocal artistry.

The Gift


Back in her showgirl get-up, Lennox poses for snapshots with fans and though it may seem a bit tedious with the camera slowly turning around, it accompanies the insanely gorgeous Blue Nile-produced track beautifully. On first look, it's either a pictorial reminder of isolation or acceptance within the majority. I'd rather see it as the latter, as somehow this video brings the whole project full circle as for most of it, Lennox seems alone in her thoughts, sad or happy, but with 'the gift' that she has found in herself, to live for herself, she'll always be at peace.

Keep Young and Beautiful


Released back in 1933 for the musical, Roman Scandals, "Keep Young and Beautiful" was a track that was sadly done by Eddie Cantor in blackface for the film (you've been warned). So why would Lennox cover this? Continuing the theme of cynicism in joy, Lennox dons some more angel wings and a sarcastic tone to sort of give a little payback, and makes the song sound completely ironic and pro-feminist. "Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved"...what an aged ideal.

Step By Step (Bonus)


A loose B-side from the Diva sessions that is best remembered for its Whitney Houston recording for The Preacher's Wife soundtrack back in 1995. Still this uplifting track is essential to the addition of Diva as it continues sort of where "Precious" and "Little Bird" left off, in all of it's positivism. Both versions show two very distinctive voices at their prime...and someone was nice enough to mash the two versions together just to drive that point home further.

As Diva turns a lofty twenty years old this year (and while I have said my two cents about it back when I first started this blog) I felt the need to elaborate, considering the special attachment I have to this project, and how, even though it shows its age in parts, that it can still be ageless as it inspires, consoles, and brings so much joy to me --- everyone needs an album like that, and for me, Diva stands for comfort.

3 comments:

  1. I need to revisit this LP. I always drawn to "Medusa" and "Bare" more than this, but with us both being of the generation that spawned "Why" and "Walking..." (which I recall hearing fondly then) this record is pretty seminal. I own, but at 19 I think it went over my head & I never really have gone back to it. Your work here will make me pull it off my shelf and give it a spin.-QH

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    Replies
    1. Oh I hope you do get a chance to revisit it! Also I'm glad I prodded you to do so *wink* I do enjoy 'Medusa' and 'Bare' for various reasons, but 'Diva' just does it for me, and better.

      'Div'a is one of "those" albums that you have to sort of grow with. I had bought it strictly for "Precious" at first as my Dad and I really liked that song after we had heard it in a film. I didn't pay much attention to it in full except for "Why" and "Walking", which like you said, you couldn't go anywhere in the early 90's without hearing those two songs so they are apart of my childhood in a way. Till one day it just clicked and ever since then it's been one of my most beloved albums. It's just a really beautiful album, IMO.

      Plus doesn't Annie Lennox just rock?!

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  2. You know I'm an Annie fan, as a Eurythmic & on her own.-QH

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