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Lessons in Destruction

Annie Lennox expounded endlessly about the evolution of her latest album on MySpace for about a year. During that time, she lamented the Bush Administration, the continued plights of people in Darfur and Iraq, the HIV/AIDS "genocide" in Africa. When she announced that the album would be called Songs of Mass Destruction, I imagined it a politically charged work, filled with her scathing criticism of the Powers-That-Be and all the evil they do, and continue to do.

Color me surprised. The most politicking she does on the album is probably in the song "Big Sky," which is still more of a general statement about the feeling of being neglected by God or Fate, rather than actually doing something about it. In fact, the loudest directive she give on the album is for her fellow gals to "Sing," a rousing if bombastic anthem celebrating the power of women:

Sing my sister... sing!
Let your voice be heard
What won't kill you will make you strong
Sing my sister... sing!


"Sing” features the following female singers: Anastacia, Isobel Campbell, Dido, Céline Dion, Melissa Etheridge, Fergie, Beth Gibbons, Faith Hill, Angelique Kidjo, Beverley Knight, Gladys Knight, k.d. lang, Madonna, Sarah McLachlan, Beth Orton, Pink, Bonnie Raitt, Shakira, Shingai Shoniwa, Joss Stone, Sugababes, KT Tunstall, and Martha Wainwright. Annie had blogged about sending the track around the globe to all these artists so they could add their own special musical talent to the song. I expected a real collaboration, a sort of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” where all of the artists had a line or a few things to do in the song. Not hardly. The second verse is sung by Madonna, near as I can tell, with one or two of the other girls singing as well, but they’re indistinguishable. No, all those great (well, most of them great – KT Tunstall? Celine Dion???) female singers sing one grand chorus at the end of the song, repeating those same banal lines over and over again, in unison, with little harmony, style or distinction. It may as well be the female sections of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for Christ’s sake.

But it's not all bad, believe me. In fact, musically, Songs of Mass Destruction is Annie's most interesting solo work to date, largely due to Glen Ballard who produces Destruction with a much larger, more complex sound than her longtime producer Steve Lipton might have. It is especially a departure from Bare, her 2003 solo album, which relied more heavily on Annie's vocals for character. Destruction, however, takes on a life beyond her amazing voice. There are aspects of rock, R&B, blues, acoustic, hip-hop, even ambient within its eleven-song length. Yet in true form, Annie's voice never disappears behind Ballard's Spector-esque wall of sound. She growls, chirps, purrs, and belts out the lyrics loud and clear, so much so that you can't help but notice some of her weaker lyrics. "Smithereens" is a bittersweet tear-jerker lessened by some clunky lines. "We're only human behind the mask," "I couldn't stand to watch you fall," and "Everybody is an island of their own," are just a few of the overused platitudes on Destruction. But Annie sings with such earnest, such sincerity, it's difficult not to forgive her the clichés.

Not only that, she writes some killer tunes. "Ghosts in My Machine" is an absolute toe-tapper with its enthusiastic squeezebox and rock 'n roll drums. In "Coloured Bedspread," she croons hauntingly about past and future love—or is it pure lust?—atop upbeat Moby-like keyboards and percussion. And "Womankind" is a much more effective charge to her fellow females to take control of their lives and their world as she harmonizes with rapper Nadirah X about being rescued not by a man, but by conscious choice.

Songs of Mass Destruction has its problems, like most records. But it certainly doesn't make sense to be disillusioned by an album that has you singing along by the third listen. It's not the Destruction I thought it would be, but perhaps it's a "kinder, gentler" destruction—the coming-apart of expectations into acceptance of a talented artist's work. Rent's "La Vie Boheme" claims that the opposite of war isn't peace, but creation. Perhaps that's what Annie meant when she titled this work.