Soul meets the abstract space

Annie Lennox's new album is a set of covers. Here she introduces them; below, Tim de Lisle reviews them
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The Independent Culture
THE MONDAY before last, the British music industry put on its party dress, ordered a limousine and went to its annual awards show, the Brits. Annie Lennox usually goes too: in fact, she usually wins the award for Best Female Artist. But this time the nomination reserved for a Scotswoman with auburn hair (and the award itself) went to Eddi Reader, and Annie Lennox stayed at home - to write this article.

I had asked her for an interview, to hear about her new album, a set of remakes of other people's songs. But she didn't feel like jumping through that old hoop, and instead suggested writing something herself. Which seemed a fine idea, as I only really had one question - the one Lennox herself has been asking for the past three years on every radio station in the western world, in every bar and shopping mall: why? Not so much why other people's songs, though she might have something to say about that, as why these people - Paul Simon and The Clash? Bob Marley and Procol Harum?

Next morning, the fax machine at RCA Records was overflowing with pages of expansive, artistic handwriting which will one day appear in an auction of rock memorabilia at Christie's. This is what it said. TdeL

THE IDEA

Why not an album of other people's songs? I've stopped counting how many albums I've made when I was having to write. This is a busk - a holiday excursion. I've enjoyed every minute.

There's no intentional theme running through the album. The process of selecting songs was instinctive - drawn from memory or partial recall. It was fascinating to begin to break down the various structures, the chordal progressions and arrangements, etc; to re-familiarise myself with songs, like old friends, and to experiment, hoping to find innovation. For me it would be ludicrous to simply try to reconstitute a brilliant song. The challenge lay in the notion of interpretation. A purist's nightmare, no doubt!

THE TITLE: MEDUSA

It arrived before any of the songs and wouldn't go away. It's ambiguous and probably best left open to interpretation. It may mean jellyfish (if you speak Spanish) or a mythological female with a propensity for turning others to stone. Betwixt the two there is a great deal of scope.

NO MORE `I LOVE YOU'S

(originally recorded by The Lover Speaks, 1986)

The Lover Speaks was a group formed by a man called David Freeman. When the song was released it made a mild murmur in the charts, but I don't think it ever really became a hit [it reached No 58]. There are quite a few songs floating around which should have touched the consciousness of the nation - they should have made their mark, and this is one of them. I thought, well, I might be sticking my neck out to do this, but I really wanted to give it another chance because it's a magnificent song. The lyrics are extraordinary, poetic and abstract - the perfect sort of vehicle for me.

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER

(Al Green, 1975)

This was actually inspired by the Talking Heads version [1978]. I needed to sing gospel/soul and I'm not the church-going kind, so I have to take the opportunity when I can.

A WHITER SHADE OF PALE

(Procol Harum, 1967)

There's a quaint story attached to this. I went to an all-girls school, and boys were a completely baffling area. By the age of 14 they had become a more consolidated interest. A party was arranged between my class and another, equally spotty, equally inept class of boys. We came together in a hotel room. I remember the whole thing very clearly. There was a record player in the room and while the boys and girls were liberally getting acquainted, I had somehow been assigned the task of playing the one hip record that everyone had, which happened to be "Whiter Shade of Pale". Once the record ended, I had to keep putting the needle back and that was my job for the night, just putting the needle back and watching it go round and round. And these children, what did they know? These were the days of pre-sex, never mind safe sex.

This was the first record I bought next to Mary Poppins. They sort of go together. Lyrically it makes no sense and all sense at the same time. Soul meets the abstract space. I love it.

DON'T LET IT BRING YOU DOWN

(Neil Young, 1970)

I started listening to Neil Young for the first time last year. (I'm not slow - I just have my own way of doing things.) Once I started I didn't want to stop and his songs seemed to accompany me everywhere.

TRAIN IN VAIN

(The Clash, 1979)

We had been searching for an uptempo track to balance the record for several months. "Train in Vain" had been set out as a contender right from the start - but somehow it never felt like the right moment to approach the beast, so it was nearly overlooked. Nearing the last few days of recording, we decided to give it a shot, and straight away things seemed to slot into place in a very spontaneous fashion. It went to a more soulified/gospel type of place and I think it's hard to even identify the song when you compare it with its source.

I CAN'T GET NEXT TO YOU

(Temptations, 1970)

Light. Light. Light. Cool, floating - just a random floating idea.

DOWNTOWN LIGHTS

(The Blue Nile, 1989)

I just couldn't resist this. Landscape of sound - instrumental gorgeous melancholic drift ...

THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE

(The Persuaders, 1971)

I only knew Chrissie's version of this [Chrissie Hynde, who recorded it with the Pretenders in 1984]. I hope she doesn't mind me having a bash at it. It's a sort of teenage plot for all those women that get trapped into being beaten up by men. I'm not so sure I'd take the same action myself though.

WAITING IN VAIN

(Bob Marley and the Wailers, 1977)

When it comes to Bob Marley, I had always thought, well, white girl from Scotland, what on earth, I have no right to sing this. But then again, it has to be said, trite as it may sound, that music does transcend colour and race. Bob Marley's music has touched a part of me which you could call the soul. Soul has no colour, therefore I think I can do this.

SOMETHING SO RIGHT

(Paul Simon, 1973)

In the early Seventies, I had a Paul Simon record, "Kodachrome" [opening track on There Goes Rhymin' Simon]. I rate him as one of the most exceptional songwriters of the century. You realise that when you analyse the chord structure and the way it fits with the lyrics and the melody. He's just a supremely gifted man, and this is a wonderful song. I hope I've done a half-decent version of it.

! `Medusa' is out tomorrow (RCA, CD/tape).

PA

NO OTHER single of the Nineties has lingered in the mind like Annie Lennox's "Why". A deep, layered ballad, with a strikingly long melodic line, it felt like a one- off - until Lennox returned with "No More `I Love You's". Another leisurely melody, another work of many layers, and another bestseller. The difference is that it's a cover version. Now here is an album of them, and you wonder why Lennox didn't do one earlier. She has both the voice and the vision to make others' songs her own.

Her menu is appetisingly eclectic: soul, rock, reggae, country, punk, and one song that resists all labels - "A Whiter Shade of Pale". This is the next single, and the key to the album. Dauntingly familiar, grand without quite being absurd, it would be easy to do badly. Lennox and her producer Stephen Lipson do it superbly. The role of Gary Brooker's looping organ (or Bach's) is shared by a humble bass and an electronic harpsichord, which links the technology of today to the spirit of the Sixties (the sound of "Yesterday"). Lennox sings those wild words with fond conviction, and the backing track reaches a woozy climax with some Laurie Anderson ah-ah-ahs. This is a Lipson-Lennox signature: where others repeat to fade, they find an extra ingredient that both fits and surprises.

Two tracks are covers of covers. Lennox knows "Take Me to the River" through Talking Heads, and "Thin Line Between Love and Hate" via the Pretenders. (Both, perhaps, from the time when the two bands toured Australia with Eurythmics.) On "Take Me" she blazes when she might be better off smouldering. But "Thin Line" is beautifully judged, touching in its lack of melodrama.

It's the only song here that is used to a female vocal. Lennox's voice is so deep that twice (on the Neil Young and the Bob Marley) she has to go up an octave. Her singing throughout has a warmth to match its customary power: it turns a blacker shade of white. Several of the arrangements achieve a similar effect, marrying R&B emotion to art-pop cleverness. "Waiting in Vain" shows that the road from rock to reggae is not a one- way street, and features an elegant classical guitar. "Train in Vain" is inspired - the first punk-gospel record. Only "Something So Right" is untransformed, and it is so graceful that you hardly object. One of the albums of the year is here already. TdeL

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