Joan Armatrading Jon Pareles - Essay

Jon Pareles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 love's intoxication—this is the hangover. Her character (Armatrading denies any autobiographical content in her songs) rejects a domineering lover in "Barefoot and Pregnant" and "You Rope You Tie Me," and in "Let It Last" she takes her time before agreeing to lower her defenses: "I got no use for you if you're / Only out to treat me unkind," she declares. At the other extreme, there are songs about absent partners that emphasize utter dependence: "Planning my weekends / Maybe planning to change / My name … And all I really want / Is to be with you," she sings in "Baby I." Her perceptiveness is intact—and so is her penchant for strong emotions—but her characters have new obsessions.

Jon Pareles, "Joan's Armageddon?" in Feature (copyright © 1979 Feature Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Peter Knobler), Issue No. 94, March, 1979, p. 70.