joan armatrading book

The Weakness In Me: Collected Lyrics by Joan Armatrading – book reviewThe weakness in me – Collected lyrics: by Joan Armatrading.

Published by: Faber

Release date: 3/11/22

There are certain lines that if you have any interest in the alchemy of music and the sheer magic of its collective verse, it’s impossible not to shiver when Joan Armatrading sang the sublime lines – I am not in love/ but I’m open to persuasion from Love and Affection it went way beyond the trivial boundaries of most contemporary music. Even now to hear it coming from a passing car or as you stride through a modern and faceless shopping centre – it has the ability to stop you dead, a beautiful reminder that the music of the universe will always usurp the latest garish offerings stood idle in a Primark window.

For Joan Armatrading, that sense of sensuality and magic has always been seminal in her canon of work. For over fifty years the English/Kittian singer-songwriter has walked a unique path, shimmering between pop stardom and introspective studio albums that have always seemed more of an elegant puzzle than a revelation. What has never altered is her love of language. Whilst some of her contemporaries have long since waded into more temperament waters, Armatrading still has a glimmer of what novelist Jim Harrison once described as a sense of echo. Great prose that basically calls and tells upon itself. ‘East or west/ Where’s the best/ For romancing.’

Now collected in a book by Faber, these published lyrics, stripped of their chords and warmth seem surprisingly bleaker without a soundtrack. Some have claimed Armatrading’s songs are about the mystery of love or at least the inherent ache of it but actually, there’s a sense of unrequitedness that runs through her work that is hard to ignore. Take the lyrics for ‘People’: ‘People all around me/ in love/ in pain/ driving me insane.’ Is the songs character yearning for such emotions or rebelling against them. It’s deliberately oblique, troubling, like a wall protecting itself. On ‘Goddess of Change’ there’s a more telling refrain. ‘Seeing lovers embrace/make you want to find your corner of happiness.’ The rest of the track paints itself as an ode to personal resurrection but there’s a brittleness there. A character in an Armatrading song you sense lives most of their life in their own head, shy ears pressed to walls, perpetually dreaming whilst life’s clock runs down unnoticed. Although she’s on record as stating that none of her lyrics are statements of her own personal situation – it’s hard not to read something into it. Happiness might write white on the page for most songwriters but Joan always seems keen for her muses to leap headfirst into a personal nadir. If there’s an anti-silver lining to be found in a song, she’s always cloudbusting for it.

Maybe her subject of love is a shield of sorts too. The run of her first albums from ‘whatever for us’ to her self-titled album in 1976 were created in turbulent times in Britain, perfect surroundings for pop, rock and folk musicians to re-energise themselves creatively. From her emergence though into long stretches of her later career, Joan Armatrading has for the most part found herself in a curious middle ground not entirely of her own making. More quiet girl than riot girl, her lack of any obvious political defiance ( it barely makes much of an appearance in her songs ) and the fact that as an artist of colour she has been caught in a curious catch-22 of being too black and not black enough for some has forced her into rare explosions lyrically. That’s addressed on the track ‘How Cruel’ where for once she finally punches out and seems much more vital for it. ‘They’ll put the skin of the fruit on the ground/ and watch me slip on it.’ has a double meaning on race that is almost chilling, and her Cobain like opening of ‘some people want to see my blood gush out’ is no less powerful. Where she’s a lot choppier is in her tribute to Nelson Mandela entitled ‘The Messenger.’ The South African leader was a man of fire and rebellion and with lines like ‘we should treat each other/ as we should be treated’ drifting close to sycophancy – there’s a tendency to dilute his politics and almost canonise him. In her lyric notes, Armatrading states that when performing the track for Mandela he danced and smiled all the way through to its conclusion. One can imagine he danced and smiled through a great deal of performances around this time, his patience tested by well meaning musical artists moved by but not fully comprehending him.

In book form of course such criticism is easy and therein lies the problem with the skeleton of lyrics without their accompaniment. What might seem touching, even profound wrapped around a tune can seem cloying and over sentimentalised on the page. Listening to a lot of these songs with Armatrading’s skilled arrangements attached, the antithesis is true and certain lyrics immediately shift into stranger and more passionate waters. You can almost smell the heat on them in fact. There’s even a huge renaissance in quality at the business end of her career. Her 2021, critically acclaimed album ‘consequences’ contains some of her most personal and heartfelt lyrics. ‘As I bathe in your eyes/ like a ship in the sea / travelling millions of miles’ she sings on ‘already there.’ It’s almost a perfect bedfellow for ‘love and affection’, proving that even at seventy years of age she is still being handed down couplets of silken beauty from the pan gods of pop.


Words by Craig Campbell, you can read more book reviews at his author profile.

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