Synthesizers and electronic percussion are still so novel that they can easily distract us from what a performer is really up to. Listeners tend to lump all synth bands together, when in reality synthesizers no more link New Order and Berlin than electric guitars link Jackson Browne and Twisted Sister.
Synthesizers can blind us to the fact that the Eurythmics are essentially a new wave/pop rock act like Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe; they too use their songwriting craft to transform such American sources as Sam & Dave, Lou Reed and Robbie Robertson. Likewise, synths can blind us to the fact that Howard Jones is nothing more than a retread of overblown art-rock bands like Yes and the Moody Blues.
The Eurythmics duo of Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox raise their much underrated songwriting and performance skills to a new level on their fifth and best album, "Be Yourself Tonight" (RCA AJL1-5429). Stewart has proved his breadth by cowriting and coproducing the strongest cuts on the recent albums by the Ramones and Tom Petty. Lennox proves her breadth on this album by more than holding her own on duet vocals with Aretha Franklin and Elvis Costello.
Produced by Stewart, sung by Lennox and written by both of them, all nine songs draw on rock tradition to create powerful monologues about love, its breakdown and social roles. Electric drums still anchor the dance beat and synthesizers still thicken the textures, but what stands out this time are the ironic lyrics, the stunning vocals, the aggressive rock guitar and the soulful horns.
The first single is "Would I Lie to You," a hard-charging rocker driven by Stax-styled horn blasts and clipped guitar riffs. As Lennox sneers "Would I lie to you, honey?" one recognizes that such lines in a lover's argument serve no purpose but manipulation -- it's as threatening a song as anything by Lou Reed or Costello. Just as disturbing is "I Love You Like a Ball and Chain," which describes love in terms of loneliness and possession as Stewart chews up the song with a screaming lead guitar.
Then the duo turns around and gives us an unambiguously radiant love song, "There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)." Drawing on the beach soul sound of the Drifters, Lennox's swooning lead and backing vocals drift off in the pleasure of romance, buoyed by a Stevie Wonder harmonica solo and a Michael Kamen string arrangement, even as Stewart grounds the song with a steady if unobtrusive electronic beat. More lively is the uptempo soul tune "It's Alright (Baby's Coming Back)," which has Lennox yodeling with delight at her lover's return.
Ever since the Eurythmics claimed that "Sweet Dreams" are made of use and abuse on their first hit single, they have presented a paradoxical view of love. They are too honest for the cynicism that dismisses romance or for the sentimentality that idolizes true love. Instead they celebrate the impulse and then ruthlessly point out all the ways that impulse gets gummed up in stale roles and greedy manipulations.
The record also contains two songs that look outward from romance to the larger world. Lennox and Franklin whip up a rousing momentum on the feminist anthem "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves." Even better is Lennox's duet with Costello on "Adrian," a moody, midtempo warning to a friend who tries to ignore the threat of nuclear apocalypse. Without preaching, the song simply alludes to a future "written off page by page" and then presses the question: "Don't you understand?"
Just as technology tends to conceal the understated strengths of Lennox and Stewart's songwriting, it tends to camouflage the soft-headed weaknesses of Howard Jones' songs. Jones, who headlines at the Merriweather Post Pavilion June 26, dresses up a dozen malnourished ditties in layers of synthesizers on his second album, "Dream Into Action" (Elektra 9 60390-1).
In sharp contrast to the Eurythmics, who wrestle with the contradictions of love and life, Jones tries to persuade us that it's all very simple: Don't rush, don't feel guilty, don't follow rules, he says, just be optimistically open-hearted and everything will work out fine. His music is no more sophisticated -- most of his songs are simply jingly pop melodies and repeating rhythmic patterns.
The profundity that fans find in Jones' work stems largely from his heavy use of echo on the vocals and keyboards. But take the artsy echo and trendy synth effects off his current hit single "Things Can Only Get Better" and what do you have? A simple-minded Chicago single from the mid-'70s.