Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"

I dropped my first album review of the new year on the Sputnik Music site yesterday, a review of the classic Eurythmics album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This). Here's a copy of the review:

The duo of Scottish singer Annie Lennox and English multi-instrumentalist Dave Stewart, a.k.a. Eurythmics, was arguably one of the most important bands of the '80s. The pair first met in 1975, became a couple, and formed a band called The Catch which eventually evolved into The Tourists. Problems within that band caused it to dissolve after 1980's Luminous Basement, but although they were no longer romantically involved, Lennox and Stewart decided to continue on as a musical team. Their first album together, 1981's In the Garden, wasn't commercially successful. However, their next album, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983) put them over the top, reaching No. 3 on the British charts and No. 16 in the U.S. The title track for the album became a huge international hit single, reaching No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 2 in Britain, while the video for the song received heavy airplay on MTV. The song has since become a rock classic, and been covered live and/or recorded by a variety of artists including Marilyn Manson, Reba McIntyre and Kelly Clarkson, and Selena Gomez. Most recently, it was featured in a television commercial for PlayStation 4 (recorded by unnamed musicians). Eurythmics followed it up by reissuing the single "Love Is a Stranger" which had been virtually ignored in Britain the first time around. It too charted in countries around the world.

So what made this album such a success? I think it's a variety of factors. The most obvious, of course, is Lennox. Since the ascendancy of Eurythmics, she's become larger than life, both for her powerful r&b voice and her striking image. For those who were music fans in the '80s, the picture of her from the "Sweet Dreams" video, with her short-cropped DayGlo orange hair, dressed in a tie and jacket, swinging her pointer, spinning a globe and crooning "I travel the world and the seven seas/Everybody's looking for something" will forever be burned into our psyches. There is clearly something compelling about her, and thankfully, she has the voice to back it up.

Then there is Stewart. After the guitar gods who dominated rock music in the '70s, music fans were looking for something different. Stewart was one of a number of '80s musicians with the talent and creativity to give it to them. Synthesizers were certainly in use by some rock bands in the '70s, but the music of people like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman tended to be grand and sweeping. Listening to Sweet Dreams, you find that Stewart is using them in a completely different way. They're more chunky, more textured, and more pop-friendly. They're also complemented by heavily programmed electronic percussion, as Lennox's vocals are supplemented by various sampled grunts, snarls and squeals. Unlike most of the synthesists of the previous decade, Stewart is as much a computer programmer as a musician.

There's also a touch of darkness to the music of Sweet Dreams, just a taste of danger. Love, in the world of this album, is "a stranger in an open car/To tempt you in, and drive you far away," and who knows where you'll end up? The synthesizer loops throughout the various songs are ominous, and sometimes murky. But it's all in good fun. With the possible exception of the poor orange-haired, green-eyed title character of "Jennifer", who winds up "underneath the water," (Is she a sea nymph? Or a drowning victim? We'll never know for sure) most of the more dangerous emotions are expressed with tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, whatever terrible truth Lennox might have learned about her lover in "Somebody Told Me", her delivery of "There's laughter and love/And a lot of pain/I never want to see your/Pretty face again" make it clear that she isn't really suffering all that much. Throughout the album, she tries on characters and personas the way an excited child who is set loose in the costume department of a large theater might try on costumes.

In fact, that's another one of the secrets of the album's success -- the music has an element of fun about it. Listen to some of the weird little yips and barks that Lennox gives off at various points in "I've Got an Angel," or the send-up of a Learn-to-speak-Spanish tape at the beginning of "This Is the House," and you realize that these guys are having a ball. Even in a more serious song like "This City Never Sleeps," when Stewart has his synthesizers mimic the low rumbling sounds of a subway train, you just know he had a big grin on his face when he recorded it.

Eurythmics eventually went on to record a total of nine studio albums (if you include the soundtrack album they made for the film 1984, which I do). Most people consider Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) to be one of their best. Its one of the seminal albums of the '80s, and it's definitely the one that launched the band's career. Today, almost 35 years later, it's still worth a listen.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars