By Aaron Hicklin
Lennox's solo work since Diva (three more albums in 16 years) has been more introspective than her Eurythmics material, as if, left to herself, she can't help but drift into a kind of solipsism of the heart. A sample of song titles from her last two albums -- 'The Hurting Time,' 'Bitter Pill,' 'Loneliness,' 'The Saddest Song I've Got,' 'Twisted,' 'Dark Road,' 'Lost,' and 'Through the Glass Darkly' -- tell their own story, although a cover of Ash's 'Shining Light,' on the upcoming The Annie Lennox Collection is unusually buoyant, perhaps because she didn't write it. 'To say I'm a drama queen would be an understatement,' says Lennox. 'But I think music, and music making, has validated my demons, in a sense, just by expressing them.'
Of the 12 'collected' songs on The Annie Lennox Collection a full half are lifted from Diva, if you include the welcome appearance of 'Love Song for a Vampire,' recorded for the Francis Ford Coppola movie Bram Stoker's Dracula and released as a double A side with 'Little Bird.' (The two new songs bring the number of tracks to 14.) Sadly overlooked is Lennox's cover of Cole Porter's 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye,' recorded for the 1990 AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Blue, a quietly devastating interpretation hailed by The New Yorker as 'one of the best recordings of a Porter song ever made.' Like 'Angel,' it gains power from Lennox's sense of bereavement, made all the more poignant by the accompanying video: old cine footage of a young Derek Jarman, the cult British director who later died of AIDS, frolicking on the beach with his sister. 'He was supposed to direct the video for Red Hot + Blue but got quite ill around the time,' recalls Lennox. 'I went to visit him in the hospital, and he was so sweet and so charming, just sitting up in bed in his lovely silk paisley dressing gown. He was the first person I met who was actually HIV-positive.'
Jarman recovered long enough to make several more movies, including his great allegory on gay oppression, Edward II, in which Lennox sings 'Ev'ry Time'' as the young king and his lover dance one last time. It's an electrifying moment and one that helps advertise Lennox's great screen presence. Indeed, looking back at the videos for the Eurythmics as well as those for Diva (for which director Sophie Muller won a Grammy), it's striking to realize how cinematic they are, with Lennox acting up a storm -- costumes, wigs, and all. (The French Restoration'inspired video for 'Walking on Broken Glass' even included cameos by John Malkovich and House's Hugh Laurie.) 'Often there's a lot of self-mockery in what I'm doing,' she says. 'It's not always obvious, but I do have a sense of humor.' Although she has only made rare forays into movies (including a Robert Altman''directed version of Harold Pinter's The Room), she thinks she might enjoy doing 'a really good character part, just for the fun of it, nothing else.'
Increasingly, she seems to have turned much of her energy toward her human rights work, very publicly in the case of Nelson Mandela's 46664 campaign against AIDS in Africa, and again more recently during Israel's bombardment of Gaza in January, when she used her celebrity for a string of interviews in which she condemned the deaths of civilians. 'People can call me naive and idealistic, but those weapons don't have to be used, those young children don't have to die,' she says. 'I just think warfare is incredibly primitive.'
Last year, after 30 years under one record contract or another, Lennox allowed her agreement with Sony BMG to expire, content for now to communicate to her audience via her MySpace blog and by posting photos on her House of Me website (a slightly goofy Clue-style series of rooms, in which users can explore aspects of Lennox's life and interests). She says she was always shy onstage, unsure what to say, and finds that words come more naturally on her blog. 'I do know that the website is the real vehicle of communication for me. And I can make anything I want, and I love that. It's so much more satisfying in a way than just making songs.'
She has learned, she says, to be more pragmatic, but not thick-skinned -- 'Because if you get too thick-skinned you get too desensitized and jaded, and I don't want to be jaded.' And if her battles aren't entirely over -- even now she will find herself, sometimes, lost in her own head 'looking at the sky in Aberdeen, and the grayness of it, and the sleet and the buildings, and the certain color of light' -- she has at least worked out a purpose for her life.
'Tell it like it is, tell it like it is,' she sings, a personal admonition and a mantra, in the closing seconds of 'The Hurting Time' on her album Bare. You could say she's been telling it like it is from the very beginning. It's unlikely that she'll be done any time soon.
The Annie Lennox Collection is available now.
Also be sure to catch Annie Lennox's on A&E's Private Sessions where the singer will discuss her career and perform some of her most beloved hits. The show premieres on Sunday, March 8 @ 9 AM ET/PT.