Thirty years ago: A retrospective review of Annie Lennox’s “Diva”
Annie Lennox was not an unknown trying for a big break when she released her debut album, “Diva”, in April 1992. Having made her name with the 70’s band The Tourists and then in the 1980’s with Dave Stewart as one half of the Eurythmics, who achieved enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic until the dawn of the next decade. Dave and Annie put the Eurythmics on hold in 1990 and after time out to give birth to her daughter, Lola, later herself a singer in her own right, Annie, along with noted producer Stephen Lipson (Simple Minds, Paul McCartney), began work on her first solo album the following year.
This would mark a bold departure from the sound and style of what her and had come to know during her time with the Eurythmics. More theatrical production and more striking lyrics were the order of the day as Annie would author all but two of the songs herself, one with Peter-John Vettese and one with Scottish band, The Blue Nile. The album that would become “Diva” kicks off, as indeed this grand entrance onto the world stage did, with the lead single, “Why?”. “Why?” embodies everything about this Annie Lennox of the 1990s’ as well as the whole ethos of the album itself. Confident, shocking, theatrical, dramatic and above all utterly sublime. A torrid story of love lost and bitter regret, “Why?” is one of those rare songs that is almost too good to have been released as a single. The contemporary and commercial sales charts of the time were full of dance anthems and indie music that were not comfortable bedfellows for something of this stature.
Released in March 1992, “Why?” made the top ten and top five in most countries across Europe, the top twenty in Australia and New Zealand but only No.34 in America, a continent that had been so supportive of her earlier work with Dave Stewart. Argument once again that a song of this calibre was not deserving of being singled out. The video sees a bare, sullen Annie gradually make herself up and in order to deal with the breakdown of a relationship, put on some outrageous clothing and a feather boa headdress with tiara (which incidentally was the same one used in the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’!). Bereft of any vocal performace until the end, Annie’s character, now brimming with self-confidence, at lasts retorts to the camera lens “these are the years that we’ve spend, and this is what they represent. Do you know how I feel?”. A final act of defiance and the last word spoken. “Diva” continues to earn high marks with a more upbeat soundtrack but in many ways a continuation of the “Why?” theme as she still yearns for lost love, living in an empty room where all the windows are smashed, it feels just like she’s “Walking On Broken Glass”.
With strings playing violently in the background, this song increases the backlash felt by that same betrayed character, more ably depicted in the video that was shot when this song was released as the third single in August 1992, which features actors Hugh Laurie and John Malkovitch set in the era of the Prince Regent and filmed around a ball in a big house. There is a happy ending to this, as the man she berates and informs time and time again that she feels just like she’s walking on broken glass (Malkovitch), sweeps her off her feet with smiles all around. “Walking On Broken Glass” was a much bigger hit Stateside reaching No.14, while it produced a second top ten hit in the UK (No.8) and a number one in Canada. In a slightly reverse order, track three, “Precious”, was released as the second single in June and sees Annie retain the pace and tone of “Walking”, this time with something that has a more Gospel/Soul/R&B feel to it and is clearly an ode to her recently born daughter, Lola – “precious little angel…won’t you stay with us forever, in a bundle full of love”. The single peaked at No.23 in the UK and was a mid charting hit across mainland Europe.
Once interesting fallout from the single “Precious” was the inclusion of the B side, “Step By Step”, which had been recorded for the album but only turned up on the Japanese edition. The song was later recorded by Whitney Houston for the soundtrack of the film ‘The Preachers Wife’ in 1996. Houston released it as a single and it made No.15 in America and No.13 in the UK. “Legend In My Living Room” moves down a pace, but only slightly, as Annie continues the dramatic tones with an added 80’s flavour and once again you are drawn to her more dominant vocal style, accentuating her position and distancing herself from what had gone before all at the same time. “Cold” offers something smoother to soothe with stripped back musical accompaniment, “Cold” could have closed this album, just as it begins with a dramatic and understated ballad, if not more haunting in scope and delivery than the former. “Cold” was released in the Autumn of 1992 as the fourth single and peaked at No.26 in the UK. Minimalism continues with “Money Can’t Buy”, another beautiful number that could, as with most of the tracks on this album, have been a single.
Another show tune, “Money Can’t Buy” also sees Annie almost rapping over the middle section, reminding us that money can’t buy happiness, neither can diamonds and nor can sex! One of “Diva’s” most catchy and instantly favoured songs comes next with “Little Bird”, which was used by BBC Radio 1 as a background theme to many of their shows, particularly when interviewing musicians for nearly two years, the repetitive tone and style of the synths producing a relaxed environment for as long as necessary. “Little Bird” charts Annie’s own personal emergence from her previous form into a very different creature. This was expressed when the song became the fifth and final single in the early months of 1993 in tandem with “Love Song For A Vampire”. Previous incarnations of Annie were all gathered on stage as the new Annie (the ringmaster) dismisses them all one by one as she is the new bird in the nest. The double A sider was the highest charting of all the singles in the UK when it peaked at No.3, perhaps aided by the addition of the new song from the film ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ and was another top ten hit across much of the rest of the world. Eastern/Asian tones feature heavily in the dramatic and arid “Primitive”, another standout of the album and yet again another fully deserving of single release.
“Primitive” sees Annie in more reflective mind as we are reminded of our own mortality as the hands of time and the grains of sand drain from our world to the next. Profound. “Stay By Me” begins with a Jazz feel to it before launching fully with a Primal Scream “Loaded” bass/beat sound that runs throughout this song, at six and a half minutes, the longest on the album. “Stay By Me” is at its best, loungeroom music with a noticeable chill factor woven through it along with Annie’s own wafer-thin vocals that are perfectly aligned to this lengthy epic. For those that bought the original vinyl and cassette version of the album, track ten is the last one. “The Gift” continues the softer production from “Stay By Me” as her single, solo odyssey draws to a close. The song draws from Annie’s own personal circumstance with the marriage to her husband, Uri Fruchtmann, and the arrival of Lola – “The Gift”. Those that bought the CD version of “Diva” were blessed with Annie’s recording of the old Eddie Cantor song “Keep Young And Beautiful” from 1933, which is delivered against the backdrop of a grainy soundtrack that makes you believe that this could very well be the original. Homage if ever there was.
“Diva” was released on 6th April 1992 and went straight to the top of the UK album chart, remaining there for a number of weeks. It was also a top ten success internationally while peaking at No.23 in America, where longevity has been the master stroke to success of this album. More than two million copies have been sold Stateside to date along with a quadruple Platinum certification back home for sales of more than 1.2 million copies. Annie would return in 1995 with a covers album, “Medusa”, and after a reformation of the Eurythmics at the end of the decade, would not record or release a follow up collection of new, original material until her 2003 album, “Bare”. “Diva” was showered with numerous awards including the Brit Award for Best Album in 1993 and is cited by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 50 greatest albums of the 1990’s. Sophie Muller, later to work extensively with Kylie Minogue, directed all the videos for this project and, rather uniquely, were all filmed back to back before the album itself was released! The initial eight being joined by “Precious” and “Money Can’t Buy” for an expanded release, titled “Totally Diva”, at the end of the era.
“Diva” remains to this day in a class of its own and was only matched in quality by the later “Bare” album. Annie proved she was able to do something on her own, without familiar faces around and speak for herself both lyrically and musically. The fusion between her and Lipson created a highly stylised, romantic journey into the past, current issues and future hopes. Annie didn’t have to do it. She had nothing to prove. She was no keen amateur seeking self prominence. “Diva” is not about the highs and lows of budding artist or of a star very much at the top of their game. “Diva” is a mirror of all our lives, whether we wish it to be or otherwise. Truth, hurt and enlightenment are all key components of this collection. We are all divas.