(#294: 4 February 1984, 2 weeks)
Track listing: Here Comes The Rain Again/Regrets/Right By Your Side/Cool Blue/Who’s That Girl?/The First Cut/Aqua/No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts)/Paint A Rumour
“I believe you only experience love with strangers, so it doesn’t last long. You’re usually just in love with the idea of somebody. Many of my own love affairs were projecting my own ideas onto others. Like the relationship between the junkie and the drug, what destroys the person is what they crave most.”
(Annie Lennox, October 1983)
The idea of the mask came from Blade Runner, or possibly an article she read about Blade Runner in The FACE, but it was enough to send out its own signals. There was a woman, and there was a man, and the woman is on the cover, in the centre of pure white light, raising her fists as if to make both embrace, her right eye looking warily at the camera; am I being brave enough? Can you believe me? And there was a man, not on the cover but on the inside, dressed in black before a background of grey, looking full on at the camera, and looking slightly fearful. Were it not for the beard you could believe he was Bowie.
So there are these two separate people, working together but being strictly professional about it, and yet you would know by just looking at them, without knowing anything about their history, that once they had something going. But neither seems particularly comfortable about being in close proximity to the other, even if they are not, as such, together. Nor are they really together in their music, other than the woman’s voice is the clear centre around which all of the man’s music revolves, or orbits. There are periodic encounters with the elements on their songs; the rain, the sun (“No Fear, No Hate, No Pain”), water (“Aqua”) – the woman could almost be singing from the centre of the world, preventing the rest of it from falling apart. The music swirls and circumnavigates around her.
But this is their third record together, these Eurythmics, and the mutual discomfort is starting to become a little jarring. The title itself – Touch – could be deadly ironic, given that one of its songs (“Aqua”) repeatedly warns “Don’t touch me.” Nothing on the record is settled or welcoming. Even its most outwardly jolly song, “Right By Your Side,” is performed as though it were an extended exercise in self-denial; she craves love, protection and warmth, extols the ability of love to solve all pain and uncertainty, but she overplays the song – her performance is a little too happy, like Julie Andrews as your geography teacher doing the Twist to Einstürzende Neubauten; so exuberant that it becomes restless. You wonder how much she really believes what she is celebrating.
For much of the rest of the record, Lennox’s voice – and there is less of her voice on Touch than you might imagine – carries a hardness, even at times a severity, which creates an immediate emotional barrier, as though erecting its own “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED” signs. Even when it is superficially softer – “Here Comes The Rain Again,” “Regrets,” wherein she sings of her fist colliding against “your furniture” – it continues to act as a veiled threat. This in itself does not make Lennox a great singer; too often on “Who’s That Girl?” and elsewhere, she seems slightly scared of silence, so must fill the space with worn pub-soul tropes – which is a shame since “Who’s That Girl?” is otherwise a finely tuned performance, her restrained exasperation only coming to the boil at key rhetorical moments (“But there’s JUST ONE THING!”).
Otherwise, “Who’s That Girl?”, with its Gartside-like hanging on the question of “the language of love” and the paradoxes that it is likely to create in reality – who, in truth, would desire anything “cooler than ice cream” or “warmer than the Sun” or both? It is the old (by early 1984 standards) New Pop theme of “love” being different from, and perhaps more desirable than, love as a real and existing thing, since Lennox seems doomed to be eternally disappointed by the latter. On “Here Comes The Rain Again,” where she is palpably unhappy, she even encourages her lover to use the language of love – “Talk to me like lovers do,” “I want to kiss like lovers do” – with, again, the elements, the “open wind,” the metaphorical “ocean” – while speaking, or singing, of the way things are as being “like a tragedy/Tearing me apart, like a new emotion” (and this imagery is echoed in “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain”: “And when the sun comes up/It’s like a new commotion”).
Hence “Regrets,” if it’s not about Thatcher, which it might be (“I’m an electric wire/And I’m stuck inside your head”), it is about somebody protecting herself against hurt and harm, to the point of hurting and harming anybody who approaches her, and this could apply to Lennox in terms of protecting her image against the world; in the FACE interview I quoted at the top of this piece, Lennox goes on to mention that: “I went to a Music Therapy luncheon last year, the kind of ‘do’ where they invite record business bosses and if you’re very unlucky you’ll sit next to a Radio One producer like I did and have him fondle your knee all through the main course.” Who wouldn’t want to defend themselves against this kind of world? “I’ve got a delicate mind,” she hisses, “I’ve got a dangerous nature.” Likewise, the lyric of “Cool Blue” could exist on the same level of allegory as Fine Young Cannibals’ “Blue” (“Blue again, it’s a lasting chill/To keep you cold as winter”), though could also, of course, refer to death; the ruminative vocal is broken up by mock-exasperated cries of “How could she fall for a boy like that?”
Whereas “Aqua,” which Lennox has said is about a junkie (“I saw you put the needle in”), could almost be a cold rationalist sequel to the Shangri-Las’ “Past, Present And Future” – “Don’t touch me/Don’t talk to me EVER AGAIN” – except that this protagonist will slowly sink under the metaphorical water of oblivion. “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain” could be set in the protagonist’s afterlife – Lennox’s voice now reduced, in the choruses, to Fairlight siren triggers, while in the verses she sings of sex and death as though they were the same thing. “The First Cut” could be a prequel to all of this, with its references to “the cold, cold ground,” while “Paint A Rumour” is a most disquieting album closer, Lennox repeatedly whispering “I could tell you something” without ever telling us what it is, other than stray lyrical sparks which may or may not have a political undertow (“See the place go red,” “Promise not to sell”).
Much of the record concerns itself with its singer not really wanting to be “here,” and one has to ask what, or who, has caused this willingness to be absent. Musically, Touch is less straightforward than its singles might suggest; it is as if the wary pop of Sweet Dreams is now being made to cohabit with the experimentation of In The Garden. “Rain” and “Girl” proceed like a more measured Depeche Mode, while the opening onomatopoeic synthesiser line of “Rain” itself helped pave the way to Acid House, as it will later recur as one of two underlying cyclical figures in Frankie Knuckles’ “Your Love.” Michael Kamen’s strings are present on “Rain” and “No Fear, No Hate” but are unobtrusive enough to make the listener forget that they are there.
“Regrets” is terrific counterfeit Grace Jones, with some unhinged cornet work from Dick Cuthell at its fadeout (Cuthell was also a regular associate member of the Specials/Special AKA, and I wonder whether Rhoda Dakar’s 1982 collaboration “The Boiler” was on anyone’s mind at the time of recording this album – Cuthell’s playing is nearly as troubled on the latter, which is too upsetting a record to be listened to more than once, but must be listened to once – for repeat playing, there is an instrumental B-side) and indeed points the way to two groups of future importance who both benefited from Dave Stewart’s patronage. One is Underworld – their anxious yet patient techno paradigm is also very evident on “The First Cut” and especially the long “Paint A Rumour” (which latter also presages Belgian New Beat) – and the other is Curve, which is hardly surprising since half of that duo, Dean Garcia, plays bass throughout Touch, and is especially prominent and creative on “Cool Blue.”
“No Fear, No Hate, No Pain,” on the other hand, musically sounds like the end of everything, more The Final Cut than “The First Cut,” slow and declining and circular. And so one can usefully listen to Touch and trace a line of influence which would eventually lead us to Goldfrapp, and to a lesser extent Portishead, and perhaps even Sinéad O’Connor and Polly Harvey, both of whom would have been young enough in the early eighties to take Annie Lennox’s pain to their hearts. But that is the final problem with the record; here we have this woman, and this man, and once they were, and now they are, but what they are isn’t what they once were, so love can never be readmitted, but there is so much protectionism and abstraction busily at work that it’s hard to detect a heart.