Now in her fourth decade of recording, Joan Armatrading has little to prove. She’s an established and well-respected artist who’s relatively free of contractual obligations and has the luxury of self-producing her albums. Such autonomy, however, has bred alternately brilliant and stupefying production choices. Into the Blues is no exception.
Despite the habitual “singer-songwriter” tag, Joan Armatrading’s albums often reveal a bevy of musical influences upon close inspection. Reggae, jazz, folk, and hard rock all inform Armatrading’s muse, and the mood evoked by her compositions varies from one song to the next; an island breeze here, a smoky café there. On Into the Blues, Armatrading’s first new studio album since Lover’s Speak (2003), the U.K.-based musician purports an album-length immersion into the blues genre. It’s not a surprising concept: as far back as Joan Armatrading (1976), blues has figured prominently in her work. (Check the sublime “Like Fire” or “Tall in the Saddle” on that album.) The blue typeface and moody profile cover shot assure the listener that Into the Blues is a sincere blues effort, even when the singer’s idiosyncrasies suggest otherwise.
“A Woman in Love”, the opening number, bounces along with an eager drumbeat and Armatrading’s expressive guitar picking. Her singing is soulfully pleading, and the way she turns a phrase over the buoyant beat is characteristically heart-wrenching: “And if I get emotional and restless / You’re like a soothing ray of light / Bring me to my senses in a / Heartbeat darling / Hold me tender in the night”. It’s a promising start, but “A Woman in Love” ultimately loses points with the needless appearance of a synthesizer that sounds about as contemporary as “I’m Lucky” (that’s 1981 for Armatrading neophytes). Despite the presence of blues guitar, “A Woman in Love” mildly annoys with its dated pop veneer, setting the track back a good 25 years.
None of the remaining twelve tracks suffer such a time warp, but, for a blues album, there are some songs that don’t quite fit in. “Secular Songs” and “Baby Blue Eyes” are fine compositions that brim with Armatrading’s unique melodic and rhythmic styles. Neither, however, is particularly blues-centric. The former owes more to gospel than anything else, while “Baby Blue Eyes” sounds like a left over from the acoustic-based Lover’s Speak album.
Bypassing the incongruity of these cuts to Into the Blues is a lot easier than enduring some of the fairly turgid straight-ahead blues tracks. What might have been a fun studio jam became the disastrous “Deep Down”, which features Armatrading incessantly repeating the title 102 times over a cacophonous rhythm section. Even more boisterous is “There Ain’t a Girl Alive (Who Likes to Look in the Mirror Like You Do)”, whose cheeky title promises more fun than it delivers (Miles Bould’s drumming is partially to blame).
To be fair, more tracks than not earn passing marks. “Into the Blues” is right and tight. Armatrading conveys that her baby only digs blues (not rock and roll, hip-hop, or pop) in four hot minutes. The smoldering style on the title cut is emblematic of what this album should have been. Shifting gears, the desolate atmosphere captured on “Empty Highway” slows the pace down to a hobble. Lyrically, the song is a walk down the loneliest road one could imagine:
As I watch the street lights flicker
Like the dying embers of your affection
Sometimes it feels like we never kissed
I’ve got no interest in the push and pull of the tides
Who cares if the world stops spinning
Cos I’m a lonely number
Yea I’m a lonely number
Whereas “Empty Highway” paints solitude as a vast landscape of grey, “Something’s Gotta Blow” shapes claustrophobia as a slow burning inferno. Vocally, Armatrading has always been something of a quirky narrator, but the burnished quality of her voice serves the visceral nature of these particular songs very well.
Into the Blues amounts to a mixed affair. While it’s reassuring that Armatrading — once one of the jewels in A&M Records’ crown — continues to write and record, it’s doubtful that she’ll earn any new fans strictly on the merits of this release. There are simply too many shifts in quality and tone to make this a consistently enjoyable listening experience. Her loyal following will certainly gravitate towards the better tracks like, “D.N.A.” and “My Baby’s Gone”, but beyond that audience, Into the Blues will strike fairly pale.