A doctor friend of mine who was working in a sanitarium for the mildly insane told me about a card one of the patients made for Mother’s Day. “To my mother,” it read. “who has always been just like a mother to me.” Funny? Perhaps, but chilling, too — an oddly mordant comment on the distinction between what we call something and what that something really is. The difference between saying “I love you” and actually loving someone can be sharp indeed, regardless of our best intentions or feelings. It is a distinction with which Annie Lennox seems only too familiar. “The language of love,” she sings with brutal elegance, “has left me broken on the rock.”
The heartbreak of language — inherent in the difference between words and actions — haunts Touch, the brilliant, if erratic, new Eurythmics album, the second to be released in America. (Their first album, In the Garden, recorded before Sweet Dreams, remains available only as a U.K. import.) But for all of vocalist-songwriter Lennox’ semiotic perambulations, Touch relies more on instrumentalist Dave Stewart, whose synthesizer work is thankfully free of the blowsy, ersatz-Motown touches that dominate other British technopop. Instead, Stewart incorporates textures that span Western music, from Seventies pop to chamber music.
Nowhere do Lennox’ and Stewart’s talents meld more stirringly than on the surging ballad “Who’s That Girl?,” a clear heir to the irresistible “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This”). Stewart’s synthesizer summons the pulsing of a string quartet, while rapping out stuttering, stick-in-your head harpsichord fills. Lennox’ luscious phrasing evokes both eroticism and anguish (“The language of love slips from my lover’s tongue/Cooler than ice cream and warmer than the sun”), culminating in a chorus of Spectorian power and simplicity that asks, “Who’s that girl/Running around with you?” “Who’s That Girl?” is Revolver rock, Eighties style: appealingly melodic, lyrically intriguing and truly inventive all at once.
The gap between real love and its stances and rituals gets a more uptempo, minor-key treatment in “Here Comes the Rain Again.” “Talk to me/Like lovers do,” Lennox begs as violin lines swirl around her rich vowels while she sings of rain falling “like a new emotion.” Not even the marimba-flavored romp “Right by Your Side” is wholly devoid of emotional ambiguity: “There’s nothing left to feel/When love gets into town.”
“The First Cut,” with its James Brown-style guitar and thumb-plucking bass, shifts gears from a bubbling funk to a smoothly sung melody line: “Ooh, I’m a white girl/You can see my skin/Look at this picture that I’m living in.” The title may refer to a first love or to the first song on a record, and the song ends, as do many of Touch‘s tracks, in an eclectic instrumental frenzy. Here, it’s a fuzzed-out guitar; other tracks conclude with squirrelly saxes and weird strings. But later, on side two, things get a little more self-consciously arty, especially on “Aqua,” where cocktail-piano glissandos trivialize its account of a junkie’s life.
There is a lot of music on this record — almost fifty minutes’ worth — and thirty minutes or so into the LP, you’re ready to trade the spare experimentation for the kind of aural power that this band can put across live. Only the stark bravado of “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)” suggests Lennox’ uncommon stage presence. She’s more a sexless virtuoso than a rock star, but is no less affecting. “Nobody told you it would feel like this,” she growls as the aural backing — disconnected supporting vocals, unwavering synth lines — evoke anguish in a world that couldn’t care less. “Paint a Rumour,” which recalls “Pop Muzik,” also plays on the danger of words (“I could tell you something,” she hints ominously), but things dwiddle out a tad too soon over its seven-plus minutes.
Despite its excesses, Touch emerges as an uncannily thoughtful album that’s direct without being simple-minded, avant-garde without being inaccessible. In its finest moments — “Who’s That Girl?,” for example — Touch seems to offer a synthesis of Beatlesque popcraft and the unsparing intelligence of the young Joni Mitchell. In a musical field awash with deep-pocketed clotheshorses and hoary soul revivalists, Eurythmics are creating something unmistakably new.