Annie Lennox's Nostalgia: Timeless Soul
“NOSTALGIA”, the latest album from Annie Lennox, the British singer-songwriter, recalls an era of smoky clubs and street-corner swing. Many of the tracks, including Hoagy Carmichael’s “Memphis in June” and “Georgia on My Mind,” George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit”, are from the classic American songbook. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s female performers such as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone made recordings of these songs that today are considered to be the definitive versions; however, as Ms Lennox is quick to note, “Most of the composers were white men.”
In the early 20th century, it was not unusual for Tin Pan Alley songwriters to appropriate the jazz and blues elements of their black contemporaries and bring those styles to a broader audience. “Summertime,” for example, was written in 1935 after Mr Gershwin visited the coast of South Carolina to experience the music of the Angola-influenced Gullah culture while researching his black musical Porgy and Bess. Abe Meeropol, a white teacher from the Bronx, penned “Strange Fruit” in 1930 as a poem of outrage after seeing a photo of the lynching of two black men. The song later became Ms Holiday’s signature.It’s no surprise Ms Lennox chose thematically complex material for “Nostalgia”. As part of the pop duo Eurythmics, she and musical partner Dave Stewart took their mix of soul-and-synthesizers to top of the charts in the 1980s. She later collaborated with Aretha Franklin, sold millions of albums as a solo act, travelled to Africa to promote the fight against HIV/AIDS, received an OBE for her humanitarian work in 2011 and later the same year led a coalition of charities to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. Few would say her career has lacked depth.
Before recording the album Ms Lennox, who turns 60 on Christmas day this year, watched black-and-white YouTube clips of previous recordings by Carmichael and the Boswell Sisters—not for vocal inspiration, but for ambience. She then sat at her keyboard to transcribe the numbers into unadorned accompaniments. “Very dense arrangements have become ubiquitous and a little tired,” she says. “I had to get back to the essence of the songs to do them any justice.”
Ms Lennox remembers listening to her father play a phonograph of the celebrated American bass and civil rights activist Paul Robeson singing the English anthem “Jerusalem”. But although her family sang often at her childhood home in Aberdeen, she was rarely exposed to jazz and blues until she was a young adult. It wasn’t until she rehearsed with Herbie Hancock’s band before a recent AIDS fundraiser in Washington, D.C. that she felt the urge to record “Nostalgia”. The intention was not to make political statements but rather to revel in the lush melodies of a dozen time-tested tunes. “My approach is not hubristic,” she says. “I want to honour the songs.” In this she has surely succeeded.
Thanks to Ms Lennox’s sparse piano settings the lyrics—with their images of pines and poplars spread thinly over an undercurrent of racial protest—come to life in her throaty alto as it flexes smoothly and sweetly, yielding unexpected moments of tenderness and vulnerability. Here, she is at her best.
Ms Lennox tempers her immense vocal power in order to maximize nuance. In Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You,” she seethes as the vengeful woman; she floats joyfully into Johnny Green’s obscure “I Cover the Waterfront” beside a sublime flugelhorn solo; in Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You,” she flirts coyly; her authenticity elevates Holiday’s “God Bless the Child;” and she reinvents Gershwin’s “Summertime” in one take. There is no trace of cabaret: “Nostalgia” is one of the most sincere renderings of a collection of mid-20th century classics by a living artist. It is a pleasure to listen to.
Photo: Press image courtesy of ANTI
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