With the release of Bare, an astonishingly direct and unflinching new album, she demonstrates this ability more clearly than ever before. Her first collection of solo, self-written material since 1992's Diva, its 11 tracks show her to have reached a new level of maturity both as a singer and as a writer. The voice, undoubtedly, has grown yet more thrilling in its colors, scope and power. And the songs? "They're about negative emotions. I have to admit that. There's simply no getting away from it." And then she smiles, adding, "In a way, this album belongs more on the Self Help shelves of a book shop, than in the record stores."
Produced by her frequent collaborator Stephen Lipson, and the long-awaited follow-up to Medusa, 1995's collection of interpretations, it leads us through the painful, sometimes despairing territory of a relationship breakdown with insight and a rare originality of expression. Anyone who has ever been heartbroken will know at once that this is the real deal. "I always believed that artists had to suffer," Annie says. "I knew they had to have some dark shadow, carry some cross, in order to gain the stamp - the certificate of authenticity, as it were. And I tell you, I have it now. I've earned it. I'm there." Fans will be left in no doubt of that, whatsoever.
Wholly contemporary and yet timeless in its sound, and with all of its various stylistic moods traceable back to black American roots, Bare is a soul record in the most basic sense: it speaks right from the soul. "Whenever I feel the need to understand a situation, or to try and articulate my feelings, my instinct is to write. Well, I've been doing a lot of writing over these past four years, much of it for no one else to read but myself. But out of that process have come these songs. Yes, of course, they're intensely personal, but they're fictitious as well as factual in that they're metaphoric and applicable to many different situations. I have a suspicion that a whole generation of people are going to identify with what I'm saying here.
"The break-ups, the personal tragedies, the this, the that...I don't know many people beyond a certain age who haven't experienced what I'm singing about. These feelings aren't unique to me. They're symptomatic of what it is to be an adult human being in this world." Such is Annie's belief in the new work, and her eagerness to bring it alive for her audience, she will tour this spring and summer for the very first time as a lone performer. "I've got all these wonderful songs - so many wonderful songs, looking back - and I want to stand there in my own shoes for once and just be myself, singing to people, without feeling intimidated."
Comprising material from across the years, the Annie Lennox 'Solo' tour opens in the US later this month (March), then will move to Europe. The highlight for British fans will be performances at London's Sadler's Wells on 6 and 7 June. "Listening to music that touches you is a very cathartic and healing thing,. I know it is for me. At this point in my life, I feel that my real capacity on this planet might be to connect with other people on that deep level through my songs and, therefore, that I should get out there and do it. It's not entertainment. It's something else. It's about a real exchange of energies. And already, it's so uplifting for me. When we started rehearsing, I realized that I felt more comfortable standing there in front of the musicians than I ever had done before."
The album's striking cover, and all other related imagery, has been created by Annie herself, working with the graphic artist Allan Martin. "I love the visual aspect of things, and have worked with so many photographers over the years," she says. "Although the results can be stunning, the fact remains that you meet them for the first time, work with them for a day, and are 'done' by them, without any input from yourself apart from your presence and cooperation. I didn't want to be that passive thing any more. I wanted to create all the imagery myself, without any filtering through or interfacing with other people. And it's been so immensely satisfying, all this experimentation. There's been a real sense of freedom."
Challenging, yes. Uneasy listening, even. Yet despite the relative darkness of its subject matter, Bare is an uplifting and ultimately triumphant album - within it, there is acceptance, progression and an opening up again to the future. It is also uplifting and triumphant in the way that it shows one of the popular music world's most beloved and accomplished artists to have reached new heights of creative self-expression. Annie Lennox is a peerless singer, writer and performer, and Bare is the most complete articulation of her unique talents to date. Now, here, she guides us through its songs...
IN HER OWN WORDS: A TRACK-BY-TRACK ACCOMPANIMENT FOR LISTENERS
1000 Beautiful Things: "A friend of mine used to say that I saw the glass half empty, rather than half full. He was right. I did. I do. So this is a kind of reminder to myself of the many reasons why I should show gratitude for just being here-and-now in the world. Sometimes, when you feel yourself to be in a very dark place, it's hard to remember what those reasons are. At such times, you have to get back to the simplest things. It's about an existential way of living your life, so that you can see the light, and appreciate all the beauty that's around you."
Pavement Cracks: "Children have such an instinctive way of reacting to the world. They skip because they're happy. They delight in the moment - in the macaroni on the plate before them. We lose that freshness as we grow. Life knocks it out of us. Yet still, there's this miraculous capacity for new growth. In my darkest times, I'd walk with my head bowed, seeing only the cracks in the pavement slabs. But then I'd notice the weeds pushing up through them, like a metaphor for hope. All is not desperate. Change comes, even when it seems it won't."
The Hurting Time: "This is a song filled with sorrow. But it's written at that point of wearied acceptance, when you've cried so much that you're all washed out, there are no tears left, and you bow to the inevitable. After any loss, there has to be that time for grieving. It's something we must go through, sooner or later, without exception. It's part of the human condition. From the moment we're born into the cycle of life, we each carry the fact of our eventual death with us. When it comes, literally, or in terms of the death of a relationship...that's the hurting time."
Honestly: "This song grew out of a turmoil of over-thinking. The mind's such a fascinating thing. It's able to carry on a multitude of conversations with itself. As the core part reacts to a given situation, another part will be observing that reaction and commenting on it. And another part will be observing that second reaction and commenting on that, and so on. Here, the music reflects that, in the sense that there are two dialogues on-going (the principle one, with its extended phrasing, and a second, reacting to the first) both searching for understanding."
Wonderful: "This has a kind of Alicia Keys feel to it. It's about a longing to be with someone. It's a song about desire, about Eros. And as we all know, desire is so toxic, so addictive. It goes way beyond the rational. It's far, far deeper than that. You may know entirely that the person you're being drawn to is the wrong person, but does that stop you? No. The relationship may be bad for you. It may be unhealthy, non-supportive, wrong in every way...But boy, are you going there, and usually at speed. Something a lot of us have felt, I think."
Bitter Pill: "I have a lot of powerful emotions, and I think it's better for me to acknowledge them in song form than to try and hold them inside. I don't like to feel anger or aggression, but sometimes you have to just hold your hands up and admit how things are for you. Otherwise, your bitterness will fester, eroding the vessel that contains it. That said, this is not a revenge song, and shouldn't be read as being against this person or that. It's just an acknowledgement of feelings that we all have from time to time, and which all of us have to process."
Loneliness: "Its strange, isn't? Here in the western world, we're all of us supposed to be living these successful, evolved, fulfilled lives, and so it's really quite shocking and exposing when someone says, 'Actually, there is failure in my world and yes, I am lonely.' Well, I'm prepared to say that about myself. And take even the happiest individual away from their safe haven of friends, family, familiar places, and they'll have that feeling too. But it's not even about physical isolation. You can be lying next to someone and still know what it's like."
The Saddest Song: "The title's very touching for me. It kind of sums everything up. I found myself looking at this bag of songs that I'd assembled and here was this one, the saddest of them all. Very clearly, it's about the end of a relationship. But it's also a song about acceptance. It's overflowing with acceptance. There's no point me trying to hide the fact that this is an album of songs about negative emotions. That's why it's called 'Bare'. But it's also about channeling those emotions, and overcoming them. And in that sense, it's uplifting."
Erased: "When I was 11, a great aunt of mine died, and I went with my parents to help clear her home. It turned out to be one of the biggest lessons of my early life. An awakening moment. Everything was as it always was - the sofa, the chairs, the table set and ready - and yet suddenly it was like a theatre set, because she was gone. Erased. And that happens again and again as you progress through life. Situations that seem permanent are suddenly altered. Circumstances change. People disappear from our lives. It's a song about that."
Twisted: "This is about miscommunication. Non-communication. When you're on track in a relationship and everything's reciprocal...Well, what could be more wonderful than to be fully engaged with another human being, and one that you love? You talk, and they listen. They talk, and you listen. Both of you understand. But once things go off track, everything gets twisted. Suddenly, it's as if you're speaking two different languages. You cannot make yourself understood, and every attempt makes things worse. It's the ultimate in frustration."
Oh God: "At first, this seems like one of the bleakest moments on the whole album, because when you have depression, you go down to a very dark place. This is a prayer, one from someone who doesn't really believe in a God, and so isn't convinced anyone will be listening. But the very fact that they're reaching out for a benefactor, given such low expectations, represents a kind of optimism - a shift from negative thinking patterns to more positive ones. In that sense, that reaching out is symbolic of progress, and of a looking to a better future.