Revenge is a bitter disappointment. For the first time in five albums, Eurythmics sound conventional. Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart aren’t quite avant-garde visionaries, but they have been a weird and welcome presence on the pop charts, producing quirky, ambitious hits by mounting the latest technology on war-horse-sturdy song structures. At the time of “Sweet Dreams,” Lennox seemed overly detached, a potential victim of her chilling image and pop-psych leanings. But on last year’s R&B-influenced Be Yourself Tonight, she bared her soul without relinquishing that exquisite vocal control. Her icy façade went up in a postdisco inferno: burn, baby, burn! Attempting to repeat that kind of breakthrough could exhaust any band. Eurythmics, though, are barely able to bring their new LP to a boil; after its first song, Revenge simmers on low heat.
“Missionary Man” is a stinging kickoff: bluesy guitars blurt, a throaty harmonica groans, and Lennox takes a sidelong look at religious guilt. Allowing how she “was born an original sinner,” she cautions, “Don’t mess with a missionary man”; she sounds a trifle subdued but still set to devour the first zealot that crosses her path. While Stewart reels off some of his earthiest licks ever on the song’s bridge, Lennox’s voice loops like a robot’s. That tension, a face-off between history and science fiction, is what’s missing from the rest of this album. This time Eurythmics are relying on formulas rather than twisting them slightly out of shape.
Of course, in the year since Eurythmics’ last album, Dave Stewart’s outside work has established him as the highprofile producer of the moment. It’s hard to pinpoint the coordinates of a Stewart “sound”; he certainly doesn’t try to reshape others according to the Eurythmics’ sonic blueprint. So maybe he’s just tired — Revenge is full of freshly minted clichés, expedient genre exercises and tailored-for-radio touches. Stewart seems to be working around Annie Lennox as he would any other client. There are moments when Feargal Sharkey might as well be singing, for goodness’ sake.
The bustling, bottom-heavy arrangements work best around the Sixties takeoffs. On “Thorn in My Side,” Annie’s campy spoken intro and her offkilter “run run run run” ‘s add irony to the girl-group gush. Former Blondie drummer Clem Burke’s bash attack drives that song and the Beatlesque “When Tomorrow Comes,” though the latter is marred by obnoxious Clarence Clemons-derived sax fills.
For all of Stewart’s supposed savvy, there are a number of similar gaffes here. The calm, trancelike air of “Miracle of Love” is disturbed by flashy effects and solos; the “Missionary Man” harp reappears gratuitously on “Let’s Go!”; and while Lennox blows an ethereal breath over the trippy strings on “A Little of You,” old “One Beat” Burke pounds away like it’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Eurythmics didn’t tour last year partly because of Annie Lennox’s throat problems, and if her days as a vocal daredevil are gone, she’s returned with a good portion of her incredible range intact. She can still turn a giggly request like “Let’s Go!” into a rockin’ command, and occasionally she’ll pull one of her unexplainable tricks and render a chorus indelible (cf. “Take Your Pain Away”: Advil, call your agency), but most of her Space Age scat, and Stewart’s wonky chops, are now relegated to bridges and fades. Annie Does Her Thing while the band vamps; Annie Sits Back and Dave Makes Funny Sounds with His Guitar while the band vamps.
Eurythmics haven’t lost their innovative tendencies; they’ve tied them in neat little packages and made them safe by labeling them. For a group that once managed to subvert new pop formats and still be popular, what kind of revenge is that?