Joan Armatrading Essay - Critical Essays

Armatrading, Joan


Joan Armatrading 1950–

West Indian-born British songwriter, singer, and musician.

Armatrading's work consistently and intensely explores the theme of women trying to reconcile a need for independence with a need to love and be loved. In reference to this issue Armatrading expresses what critics have called a "guarded or careful optimism." When her work surfaced in England in the early 1970s, admiring critics cautiously considered it "too good, too complex, and too demanding" to find a large following. In spite of this prediction, her third album, Joan Armatrading, produced two hit singles and became a gold album in England where she is a top-billed performer. In the United States, her audience is growing, dedicated, and at times, fanatic.

Armatrading is noted for the passion, irony, and wit with which she explores her subjects. She presents her audience not so much with an analysis of emotion as with the emotions themselves. Her strongest advocates are young women who feel that what appears to be sexually ambiguous in her lyrics only reflects the reality a modern woman faces in a period of changing roles and expectations.

Armatrading's writing reflects the character of an intensely private individual. She has been accused of being deliberately obscure in an attempt to disguise painful personal experiences; however she insists that her work is not specifically autobiographical. She has been called arrogant by critics who find her more difficult songs unnecessarily trying. Others maintain that the apparent distance placed between the song-writer and her subjects preserves the purity of her statements, giving them a certain universality that confessional writing often smothers.

Because Armatrading is a black woman, political and social activists have hoped that she might write for their specific causes. While she may be sympathetic with social concerns she has yet to align herself with any specific ideology. Rather, she continues to address issues in her work that are relevant to both men and women and has said that the best thing she can do to help women is to be a woman who is succeeding.

Jamake Mamake Highwater

Though she comes from the West Indies, you will hear little calypso, steel band, or reggae in the world of Joan Armatrading. Her real musicial life began when she landed in Britain in 1958…. The vitality and lyricism she has discovered are really quite marvelous [on Whatever's For Us]….

Jamake Mamake Highwater, "Another Year, Another Annex for the Hall of Obscurity," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1975 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 34, No. 4, April, 1975, p. 59.

Susin Shapiro

[Joan Armatrading conveys] a tensile sedateness and haltingly eloquent mournful phrasing in Back To The Night…. She claims the influence of Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell, but I find the derivation obscure and irrelevant. ("No Love for Free" is an unsettling song about a prostitute who can't handle love and won't give up her trade for it; hardly Joni's cup of tea.) Armatrading moves around the sexual combat zone like a trooper who has found that all the safe corners are no longer providing comfort and wants out of all the nice cliches and familiar niches…. Anger handled calmly, stripped of its neurotic baggage, is Armatrading's forte…. [She lets] it all out, not as an assault, but as an expression of her depth. (pp. 68-9)

Susin Shapiro, "What Once Were Vices Aren't Even Habits Anymore," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1975 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January, 1976, pp. 68-9.

Richard Williams

["Joan Armatrading"] is the most fascinating [album] I've heard so far in 1976….

[It is] a completely convincing marriage of form and content: an emotional depth wedded to pleasing musical substance in a way which, to me, indicate a pretty rare level of intelligence….

The first quality one perceives in "Joan Armatrading" … is certainty. Her writing, singing, and playing evince a surefootedness which borders on arrogance; at last, one feels, she knows she's good and doesn't mind showing it….

[The] musicianship and subtle production [of "Joan Armatrading"] are subordinate to the songs themselves, and out of ten she has come up with six that sound like classics to me.

"Love And Affection" begins thus: "I am not in love / But I'm open to persuasion," and continues, "with a friend I can smile / But with a lover I could hold my head back / I could really laugh …" Another, "Save Me," similarly articulates various shades of loneliness, its imagery ("Like blood in the rain … running thin") matched by a stunning ballad melody.

Richard Williams, "'Joan Armatrading'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), August 14, 1976, p. 16.

Caroline Coon

["Joan Armatrading"] is as perfect as it's possible for an artist to make without leaving you with the uncomfortable feeling that it represents the peak of their talent….

Her songs have always lingered in the fraught dimensions between love and freedom, the lonely voids between people unable to communicate clearly with each other. She writes about fractured feelings, numb despair, frozen emotions but, for all her ability to describe the bleak side of life and the stark pain of insecurity, she never becomes morbid and self-pitying.

She is just as emotive when she is writing about hot passion. She laces the sadness, which is never bitter, with an especially potent dream of love. She is direct, open, and supremely lyrical. (p. 16)

The feeling of isolation, of needing comfort, of wanting to say "I love you, but not knowing how," are all essential themes in Joan's writing. (p. 46)

Caroline Coon, "Joan-Burning Like Fire," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), August 14, 1976, pp. 16, 46.

Sheila F. Younge

Joan Armatrading's songs are personal and introspective with the emphasis more on lyrical than musical invention. She writes with vivid imagery…. Already a well-known name in Europe, Joan seems headed for success on our side of the Atlantic as well….

Sheila F. Younge, "Record Reviews: 'Joan Armatrading'," in Essence (copyright © by Essence Communications Inc. 1977), Vol. 8, No. 2, June, 1977, p. 39.

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Ray Coleman

With her oblique, uniquely structured songs and a voice that swirls so passionately around the words that you just have to listen carefully, Joan Armatrading has quickly become one of our most distinguished artists.

When she arrived with her brilliant album "Joan Armatrading," keen students of the songs knew it would be hard for her to top such a collection. Every one, from "Love And Affection" to "Water And The Wine," had that compelling touch of a truly original artist who had absorbed all the right styles and then transplanted her own urgent stamp.

Here she is, then, long after that crucial breakthrough album … and it's great to be able to herald "Show Some Emotion" as a...

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Georgia Christgau

Armatrading's recent album, Show Some Emotion, revealed an evolving star in touch with herself…. (p. 59)

Armatrading has rocked out, or tried to, since the release of her first record five years ago. Whatever's for Us, a collaboration with composer Pam Nestor, is one of her best…. Songs about city girls and deranged women, international relations resolved with manna from heaven, the sea's big fish. I love it.

Two subsequent albums are more oblique, personal. The music seems more funky, but in transition. That she was writing more than her share of songs about quick men, that she wound up separating independence and freedom from sexual love, only means that she was...

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Ariel Swartley

Last year's Joan Armatrading was an intriguing mix of sensitivity and bravado—wry, confessional love lyrics and syncopated, idiosyncratic melodies. In part, Show Some Emotion is a smoother, more consistent exploration of that territory….

["Woncha Come on Home", the first cut on Show Some Emotion] is no plea for lost love, it's a woman's panic, alone in the house, jumping at every noise, fearing shadows at the window.

Part of Armatrading's appeal (to her largely female, generally well-educated following) is that she's neither unapproachably strong nor unnecessarily victimized. Joan Armatrading presented an amorous adventuress with a sense of humor. She...

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Fred Schruers

Show some emotion. It's an instruction so direct that it reads as something strange and hollow. If you don't already trust Joan Armatrading as an exceptionally forthright huntress and performer, you could mistake those three words [also the title of her fourth album] for the most familiar sort of '70s epigraph….

But Armatrading … has earned the right to be blunt. She is determinedly warm-hearted, with her every move founded upon a sensuality that is just as appealing as (and maybe more trustworthy than) the grabass openness of Bonnie Rait or Maria Muldaur. And her ear-boggling voice is simply the necessary and sufficient instrument for her songs.

Yet this West Indian emigre to...

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Patricia Ann Brody

A prevailing theme that can be pinpointed in Joan's work, whether in her guitar playing or songwriting, is fierce independence. "I've always been on my own; I'll do it myself," crops up again and again in … the lyrics of her songs. (p. 30)

Patricia Ann Brody, "Joan Armatrading: Breaking through as a Guitarist-Singer," in Guitar Player (© 1978 by GPI Publications; Cupertino, CA; reprinted by permission), Vol. 12, No. 4, April, 1978, pp. 30, 92, 94, 96-7.

(The entire section is 68 words.)

Ken Tucker

"To the Limit" is Joan Armatrading's most satisfying album of folk-jazz musings because it's her most open, accessible work…. ["To the Limit" consists of] serene, quiet melodies that have the sprawl of folk music and the discursiveness of jazz…. (p. 55)

In "Taking My Baby Up Town," Armatrading revels in the sensual sensation of parading a conquest on her arm in just the same way she's seen men showing off women all her life. In "You Rope You Tie Me," she acknowledges her attraction—and passion—by castigating the loved one so obsessively. The constantly recurring phrase, "You get too jealous," is plainly the root of the couple's troubles, and the singer is intent on making clear what's driven...

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Jon Pareles

Crazy, extreme, unfettered emotion is Joan Armatrading's uncontested domain. Her songs prowl restlessly "from the bottom to the top," rarely settling in one frame of mind. She wants to tell all: every shading of passion, every aching contradictory impulse, every electric moment. Although she's a chronicler, not an analyst, no other songwriter examines feelings so microscopically—and, at the same time, so fervently. Then again, few singers are so well equipped for the job….

[There is a] new undertone in To the Limit's lyrics. Most of Armatrading's earlier songs are about love's momentary blinding passion, while To the Limit considers more sober questions of independence. Farewell to...

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Peter Reilly

"To the Limit" is a serious and, at times, puzzling album…. [The] lyrics (particularly in such as Taking My Baby Uptown, Your Letter, and You Rope You Tie Me) have the dodgy ambivalence of a half-overheard, partially comprehended conversation…. [There] is still something very young about her, as if she were someone who has seen too much early on but who has opted to fight rather than settle for a passive, smart-ass bitterness. Joan Armatrading is still someone to watch.

Peter Reilly, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'To the Limit'" in Stereo Review (reprinted by permission of the author), Vol. 42, No. 3, March, 1979, p. 112.


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Mary Harron

[Joan Armatrading] is sexually ambiguous, and that is what all independent women are nowadays, whether they are heterosexual or not.

The ambiguity comes from the conflict between independence and need. In "Down To Zero" we see her needing side…. In "Steppin' Out", we see the side that is masculine, freedom-seeking, even ruthless.

The problem of wanting to express passion while maintaining your self-respect is one that really speaks to women. Unfortunately, this same tension undermines her performances. She is intelligent, worried; almost too controlled to be exciting. Only on one album—"Joan Armatrading", released in 1976—did she seem to take hold and deliver. She...

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Marianne Meyer

[Joan] Armatrading avoids self-absorption or cosmic commentary in her work. Her lyrics have an intimate narrative quality (which she insists is not autobiographical) balanced with innate intelligence and a strong (albeit sometimes vulnerable) sense of self-worth…. [Her music] is vaguely reminiscent of Joni Mitchell or Phoebe Snow but with a sharper edge and eclecticism that is wholly unique.

Armatrading's first two albums were cluttered and a bit grandiose, betraying the elegant simplicity and taste of her songs…. ["Joan Armatrading"] was the first to focus her lyrical passion and crystallize her musical style. (pp. 28-9)

Marianne Meyer, "The Elusive Joan...

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Jon Young

[Steppin' Out is] an excellent, no-nonsense display of Armatrading's power as a performer and composer. Avoiding the extremes of folkie mawkishness and safe detachment, she goes for a smoldering middle ground where emotions and canny intelligence reach a temporary truce…. It's enough to give the singer-songwriter a good name.

Jon Young, "Hit and Run: 'Steppin' Out'," in Trouser Press (copyright © 1980 by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press, Inc.), Vol. 7, No. 5, June, 1980, p. 40.

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Martyn Sutton

'Me Myself I' has class written all over it. Great melody, witty lyrics…. [This] is the single of the month from the album of the year(?).

Martyn Sutton, "Single File: 'Me Myself I'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 14, 1980, p. 14.

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Robert Shelton

All the new songs [on Joan Armatrading's "Me Myself I"] were written in less than an hour, and she completed "When You Kisses Me" in only 10 minutes.

"This was just a very easy album to write," she explained. "When I was ill, I had a lot of time to think about what I'd write, when I could again … I don't remember just how long. So I was able to really think about it and to jot down quite a few words. Once I started to write the songs, it just came really easy because I'd sort of prepared it, you know."

So many of her songs seemed to reflect the attitudes of "the new woman" that I felt compelled to tell her that her song "You Rope You Tie Me" might anger unliberated men....

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Don Shewey

Joan Armatrading is a loner,… but she's as matter-of-fact about it as she is about everything else: she just likes to be by herself. "I wanna be a big shot / And have ninety cars," she sings in the title tune of Me Myself I. "I wanna have a boyfriend / And a girl / For laughs / But only on Saturday / Six days to be alone / With just me myself I."

Armatrading's stubborn independence serves her well both as emotional armor and aesthetic fuel. Her songs often make a point of drawing lines around relationships—indeed, her most famous composition, the 1976 minor hit, "Love and Affection," laid down strict distinctions between romance and friendship. But she doesn't make such distinctions simply...

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Aida Pavletich

Joan Armatrading is an exciting guitarist as well as the mistress of a large, boomy voice. Her melodies are touching, though set to lyrics that are mystifying at best. They may mean nothing at all, simply groupings of interesting words that could obliquely suggest some meaning if one is driven to fathom it.

Aida Pavletich, "Chirps, Thrushes, and Nightingales," in her Rock-A-Bye, Baby (copyright © 1980 by Aida Pavletich; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), Doubleday, 1980, pp. 147-82.∗

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