Album release dates being what they were — and what they sometimes still are, frustratingly so — the 20th anniversary of Diva actually stretches back to April 6, as other territories were treated to Lennox’s first full-length venture outside of Eurythmics well before we were. But I’d gotten a jump on Diva, having stumbled upon the CD for sale at a local indie record store a week or so ahead of the album’s official May 12 release date — a single copy with a hole punched through the barcode.
I put Diva on the stereo as soon as I returned home. I was only familiar with “Why,” the first track, which was already on the radio. But as Lennox’s new music continued to spin, an album that I had hugely anticipated, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as upbeat or as Eurythmics-y as I assumed it would be. Lennox, who was 37 at the time Diva was released, seems to have braced herself for such external expectations, saying this in the album’s press release:
“In a sense I feel like this is is my very first album. And because of that, it had to be something that represented me totally and exactly. Of course it’s nice to have hits, but not at the expense of creativity and honesty. I didn’t want to just write meaningless, formulated pop songs to guarantee myself success. I wanted to come up with material that was authentic and completely true to myself.”
Now what’s wrong with a few meaningless, formulated pop songs? Now, of course, I see Lennox’s point. She’d spent a dozen years as one-half of Eurythmics and had to process what that history meant as she stepped out on her own.
Though Diva wasn’t immediately what I wanted it to be, the CD remained in the changer for days and weeks. Little by little, the real beauty of this collection of 11 songs was revealed, in moments that ranged from reflective (“Why”) to ferocious (“Legend In My Living Room”), broken-hearted (“Cold”) to beautifully lush (“Stay By Me”). Sometimes specific moods surfaced only to shift within the same song.
Diva soon became one of my go-to albums, a designation that has lasted in the two decades since its release. Pulling my well-worn copy out in March when I learned of the album’s approaching anniversary, I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought Lennox had failed to deliver, even for a moment. Picking just one track to celebrate her milestone achievement is like a musical Sophie’s Choice, but “Money Can’t Buy It” has some of my favorite lyrics. These still kill me the first time through, becoming absolutely transcendent in the second, final pass:
“I believe that love alone might do these things for you / I believe in the power of creation / I believe in the good vibration / I believe in love alone, yeah yeah.”
I wasn’t alone in my initial disappointment with Diva. Entertainment Weekly gave the album a “C,” lambasting the very same words of “Money Can’t Buy It” that I love so much, calling them “a wilted lettuce leaf of a lyric.” Now with 20 years’ worth of time and distance (and the benefit of letting an album marinate a bit without deadline), I hear Diva as Annie Lennox’s salad days on display. And amazingly — though nearly two decades separate us in age — she helped provide the soundtrack to mine.
For another perspective on the 20th anniversary of Diva, pay a visit to Idolator, where my friend Stephen Sears (of The Middle Eight) has done a delightful job. Among other details, I’d forgotten that Diva earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year.