MUSIC Hey Annie fans, relax. How many pop princesses are savvy enough to begin the intro verse of an album's kickoff song with a couplet that casually and subtly incorporates the titles of Shannon's "Let the Music Play" and Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You"? Years in the making, Don't Stop (Smalltown Supersound) has gone through more permutations than a combinatronics expert could comprehend, yet our girl brings the goods the first seven songs are quip-sharp, catwalk-strut perfection, especially the initial one-two-three punch. The opener brings its introductory marching band motif back around at the climax with a potency that Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac might envy. "My Love is Better" is so sassy it's funny, and so catchy it's near fatal. Resplendently melancholic, "Bad Times" matches the femme finesse of Saint Etienne's best uptempo moments and the melodicism of Johnny Marr and Kirsty MacColl's peak collabos.
The higher Annie's feather-light voice soars, the deeper the undertow of sadness in her words, and in that regard, "Bad Times" is her second album's "Heartbeat." It might not become everyone's pop song of the year the way her "Heartbeat" so obviously ruled 2004, but that's only because it's a little too introverted. If anything, it's more sublime.
There are some interesting subtexts or subplots at play in Don't Stop. One is its meta-pop aspect: at least a few songs address fellow songwriters and pop stars. "I Don't Like Your Band" delivers a series of conciliatory kiss-offs and pieces of advice. This gambit would be deadly if Annie wasn't on point, but she serves up immaculate wit and melody. (Robyn has to admire this track.) "Songs Remind Me of You" flips the Casey Kasem-era Top 40 conceit of an old song conjuring memory of an old love in this case, Annie wonders if the pop prince or princess she's singing to is haunted by his or her past creations when they materialize from a nearby radio.
That "his or her" is worth noting, because Annie has almost never added gender-specific touches to her songs. For sure, when she's put together a put-down lyric, it's easy to imagine a boyish man on the receiving end. But Don't Stop's one plaintive ode to a particular person, "Marie Cherie," addresses an ill-fated girl "who never made her sweet 16." Some unimaginable yet just-right marriage between Claudine Longet and P.J. Harvey's "Down by the Water," it's as seductively Sapphic and remote as a daughters of darkness fantasy. Annie at her best: more than strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.