Why this Diva is singing through the darkness
Annie Lennox, owner of one of the most thrilling, seductive voices in pop, reveals to Neil McCormick why her new album is filled with so many songs of loss and longing
When I tell Annie Lennox I have been listening intently to her new album, she exclaims "Help!" in mock panic. When I mention a song of suicidal despair, she holds out her bare arms and shows me her wrists. " There's no band-aids on me yet," she says.
At 52, Annie Lennox is looking elegant and strong - her narrow, high-boned face occasionally lit up by a teeth-baring, almost feral grin.
I recently saw her perform an extraordinary show with the BBC concert orchestra, and I was reminded again of the formidable potency and power of her presence. Over 30 years, Lennox has maintained a striking image - androgynous yet embodying her feminine strength, intelligence and independence.
But, when last we heard from her, in 2003 when she released the album Bare, she was recovering from her second divorce.
Beneath the seductively melodic surface, the rawness of her emotional state was documented in a desolate and often self-lacerating style.
Four years later, she is back with Songs of Mass Destruction, a title hardly suggestive of joie de vivre.
The album starts with Lennox walking a Dark Road, revolves around her looking Through a Glass Darkly and concludes with her clinging to a Fingernail Moon - song titles which suggests their creator is not in a happy place.
"It is a dark album, but the world is a dark place," Lennox responds, in modulated Scottish tones. " It's fraught, it's turbulent. Most people's lives are underscored with dramas of all kinds: there's ups, there's downs - the flickering candle.
" The human condition is that you are born and the only certainty you have is that you are going to die. What human beings have done to themselves, to each other and to the planet, is just horrendous."
Lennox speaks in huge, sprawling sentences, with clauses and sub-clauses that take a great deal of concentration to follow. She is eloquent, poetic even, but on the big subjects (life, death, ethics, morality, meaning) - on which she says she "frequently ponders" - her underlying pessimism verges on the brutal.
Discussing the album title, she addresses global warming, the war in Iraq, the Aids pandemic in Africa, religious conflict, political corruption, business greed, global poverty and rampant inequality.
"This planet is absolutely off its head," she says. "It is Hieronymus Bosch out there. Half the people are drinking or drugging themselves to numb it. A lot of people are in pain."
Aware of how bleak she can sound, Lennox makes several attempts at counterbalance, although for all her protests about her appreciation of beauty, the darkness never seems far behind.
Bold and unshrinking, she says the depressiveness has always been with her.
"I am just one of those creatures that has that magnetic pull towards the melancholic - it's in the Celtic identity."
Lennox was an only child. The daughter of a shipyard worker in Aberdeen, she grew up in an environment she has characterised as "harsh".
"I didn't come out with a stamped guarantee on my backside that said, 'SONGWRITER'," she laughs. "It's as if I just invented that potentiality."
At school, she was something of a musical prodigy - studying classical piano and flute before going on to win a place at the Royal Academy of Music.
Yet, despite the global success she enjoyed with Eurythmics (nine hit albums between 1981 and 1989) and as a solo artist, there have been long periods of silence: this is only her fourth solo album in 17 years, with one Eurythmics reunion album in 1999. But she ascribes this to simply wanting to be a mother to her two daughters, Lola (16) and Tali (14).
One track on Lennox's album Sing is a feminist anthem inspired by Aids activists in South Africa, with all profits going to TAC (Treatment Action Campaign). Twenty-three of the most famous women in pop, including Madonna, Joss Stone, Dido, Shakira, Pink and Celine Dion, contributed.
Lennox speaks with huge enthusiasm about music, particularly the mysteries of songwriting. "It's working with invisible stuff, trying to grab and grasp things, freefalling with it", she says, really coming alive. You can see where the joy in her music comes from - that uplift that somehow makes her pessimism so palatable.
On the blues stomper Love is Blind, Lennox flirts with her most destructive, singing, "Sometimes I feel like I don't exist /Cut my veins and slit my wrists." Yet her performance is paradoxically exhilarating, as she emits whoops of delight in the face of suicidal despair.
"Joy must be in there. That must be where the whoops come from," she says. "I think it's about embodying some sensibility in music that is celebratory and wild and untamed. I love entering into the spirit of the song. I have a few whoops in me, I tell you."
Songs of Mass Destruction (RCA) is out on Oct 1