Although she took a long break after 1995’s What’s Inside, Joan Armatrading has been making an album every few years since 2003’s Lovers Speak. This, however, is the first time in decades that one of her projects has been attached to a heavyweight like BMG. Combined with the pop appeal of its contents, this has leveraged Not Too Far Away into the UK Top 30, Armatrading’s first visit since 1990. A high profile appearance on The Graham Norton Show must have helped. So, too, of course, has the formidable amount of touring Armatrading undertakes, keeping her fresh in the imaginations of music audiences worldwide.
But what of the album itself? Sometimes, when an artist takes on almost every role (and here, Armatrading is the producer as well as playing all the instruments, an approach she’s tried before), the results can be patchy. There’s no one to bounce ideas off, no one to say, “that’s not very good, is it?” Armatrading, however, bucks this trend, as she seems to thrive on autocracy in music creation. Not Too Far Away is fresh, ebullient and gloriously accessible. The early phase of Armatrading’s career, from Whatever’s For Us (1972) through to To the Limit (1979), presented the self-possessed, publicity-deflecting singer/songwriter mainly on acoustic guitar with a band. Then, with Me Myself I , the 1980 album that most endeared her to American audiences, she abruptly changed course, leading to a series of albums on which she embraced synthesizers and rocking out. On Not Too Far Away, she gives us a bit of everything.
Back when Armatrading first moved into the world of electronics and other contemporary studio trappings, she displayed much more mastery over them than some of her peers. Quite a lot of 1970s singer/songwriters were overwhelmed when all manner of tech was foisted on them by domineering 1980s producers. Rather than playing the synthesizers, it sounded as if the synthesizers were playing them. Armatrading, however, was different. If she didn’t quite forge new worlds of sound in the manner of Kate Bush, she certainly demonstrated considerable command over the emerging technology, embracing it on a series of albums including Walk Under Ladders (1981), Secret Secrets (1985) and Sleight of Hand (1986). These works were strikingly different from her 1970s output. Since resuming recording with Lovers Speak, she has alternated between electronic and acoustic, sometimes, as on Not Too Far Away, blending them.
Armatrading has always guarded her privacy quite assertively, although I remember wondering whether the announcement in the press of her marriage in 2011 would introduce us to a more relaxed, more open performer. Whether or not that’s the case, on record, she certainly sounds happy, energetic, sprightly and adventurous, with a voice that’s holding up remarkably well as she nears the end of her seventh decade. The sentiment of “I Like It When We’re Together”, both the album’s first track and its single, initially struck me as rather prosaic, but I had underestimated the power of the Armatrading earworm. It comes with the kind of vehement hooks that brook no resistance, and soon the charm of the song wins out over the skillful but unremarkable lyric. The artful use of rhythm turns lines like, “Everything, every single thing, everything I do / I do because I love you” into something much greater than the sum of their parts.
As is immediately apparent, these songs are meditations on love, partnership, and commitment, which is more or less how it’s always been with an Armatrading album. “Still Waters” and “No More Pain” (“You stabbed at my heart and caused it to break…but I’ll decide that I will stand no more pain”) peer into the murkier vagaries of romantic interaction, with soundscapes reminiscent of those that Armatrading created with producer Gus Dudgeon on her first album, with only the drum programming and the slightly electronic sheen of the strings giving away their vintage.
“Cover My Eyes”, in which the protagonist is in torment over lost love and caught up in envy is, like most of the material, built around drum programming, carefully constructed vocal harmonies, and Armatrading’s formidable guitar work. “Invisible (Blue Light)”, a song of urgent physical yearning, has a sensual, propulsive rhythm that’s a perfect fit for its words. Armatrading tends to be at her very strongest when she frames her ideas in challenging time signatures and intricate rhythm patterns, and every touch, from the bluesy, processed guitar solo to the “don’t remain invisible to me/’cause I want you right now” refrain, make this perhaps the most thrilling part of the album.
But the intriguing title track comes close. “In our cardboard mansion/We will laugh at the rain/and run from the fire/straight into the sea/and swim into the unknown you and me”. This is an oblique story-song with a lyric that suggests romance in straitened circumstances. In its elegance, its not-quite-simplicity and its heartstring-assailing chorus, it’s classic Armatrading, up there with fan-favorites like “Willow”.
“Any Place” (“As long as I’m with you/Any place will do”) is another rather humdrum sentiment enlivened by Armatrading’s enthusiasm. Only “Always in My Dreams” is inessential. It’s a piano ballad, a form not among Armatrading’s strong suits. She’s simply not as good a pianist as she is a guitarist, playing the instrument without exploiting its dynamic potential, applying the same pressure throughout and confining herself to fairly rudimentary block chords and broken chords, with a bit of window dressing here and there. It’s a reminder of why her second album, Back to the Night (1974), was such a big leap ahead of her first – precisely because she made the guitar her primary instrument, and let others (e.g. Jean Roussel) step behind the keyboard.
Fortunately, “This Is Not That” and, especially, “Loving What You Hate” find her back in her element. In fact, “Loving What You Hate” does what “I Like It When We’re Together” can’t quite manage, which is to approach its subject matter from an interesting angle. It’s a clever song about reassuring the object of one’s affections that the very things they dislike, even detest, about themselves are what make them loveable (“I’m loving what you hate/your brown eyes/I’m loving what you hate/you’re too shy/I’m loving what you hate/how you trust everyone/I’m loving you/I’m loving what you hate”). It’s got a captivating, strum-based rhythm and an attractive sadness in its verses that yields to a more cheerful chorus.
It’s great to hear someone making 67 years old sound so vibrant and vital. Armatrading is not heading for the safety of reheated hits collections or oldies albums any time soon, and that’s cause for celebration. She’s too busy making new music that’s every bit as good as the stuff she made her name with, back when she was one of A&M’s bright, young hopefuls.