Annie Lennox’s solo debut, Diva, opens with a song called ”Why,” in which she languorously stretches that word across several measures as if she were unfurling a length of satin. It’s a natural question for listeners, too. Overloaded with varnished, anesthetizing melodies and facile lyrics, Diva elicits one long, ponderous ”why.”
It’s the first time Lennox has made us ask that question. As half of Eurythmics, she cowrote and coarranged — with partner Dave Stewart — some of the most irresistible pop of the ’80s. Even if we couldn’t stomach the weighty, self-important lyrics of such songs as ”Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and ”Here Comes the Rain Again,” we could still be caught in the net of their shimmering melodies. And in performance, her voice could be so commanding that, if not for Stewart’s laudable guitar work, we might have thought Lennox was Eurythmics.
Even her contradictions worked in her favor, reminding us that aloofness is often the best disguise for vulnerability. Her clenched-fist emoting stood at odds with the ice-blue shading of her voice, which showed an almost upper- crusty refinement. But Lennox’s frosty veneer was anything but lifeless. She took the popular ’80s argument that synth-pop was soulless, gutless music and shot it full of holes. When she asked a false-hearted lover, ”Who’s that girl, running around with you?” (on 1983’s ”Who’s That Girl?”), the fragility of her crisp reserve told everything we needed to know about her crumpling insides. If her delivery was as polished and controlled as a synthesizer riff, it was probably the result of wishful thought: If only she were a machine, she’d have nothing to hide. Human beings, poor things, don’t have that luxury.
But on Diva, Lennox bares too much and doesn’t tell us enough. At times her song’s hooks undercut her earnestness: The jaunty, Caribbean-flavored ”Walking & on Broken Glass” (faintly reminiscent of Eurythmics’ ”Right by Your Side”) is laden with sharp-edged metaphors for broken love affairs. So why does Lennox practically effervesce when she sings, ”Take me from the wreckage/ Save me from the blast”? She regains some of her toughness on ”Money Can’t Buy It,” and the song’s loping, seductive beat almost pulls us in. It’s not enough, though, to prop up a wilted lettuce leaf of a lyric like ”I believe in the power of creation/I believe in the good vibration/I believe in love alone, yeah yeah.”
To her credit, Lennox — who wrote all the songs on Diva except the bonus CD track, Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s ”Keep Young and Beautiful” — uses a broad range of paint-box colors in her songwriting. She’s as comfortable with the Middle Eastern flavor of ”Primitive” as she is with the gospel and blues touches on ”Cold.” And there are portions of ”Stay by Me” that have the grace of a good Philly soul ballad; you can almost see some natty Soul Train dude’s ruffled bell-bottoms shuffling along with its winsome flute motif. But that precious motif gets swamped by a torpid melody; its sluggishness brings to mind that endless ’70s chestnut ”Love’s Theme,” a No. 1 hit for the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
Although Lennox sings with as much conviction as ever, it’s not enough to galvanize these sprawling, unfocused songs. There’s a film of dullness over Diva that not even Lennox’s polish can wipe away. Whatever it is sweet dreams are made of, we can only hope it’s not this sticky. C