As a teenager, I adored the movies of Shelley Duvall, so it was only a matter of time before I discovered the music of Joan Armatrading.
On 14 May 1977, Duvall — then earning raves for her Cannes Film Festival Award-winning performance in Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) — hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live on which Armatrading was the musical guest. Both artists — Duvall and Armatrading — were in a period of professional metamorphosis. Altman had discovered Duvalled in her native Texan earlier in the decade. He cast her in a series of films that earned her steady acclaim, though it’d be Duvall’s starring turn in 3 Women that made her a household name.
Armatrading’s debut album, the Pam Nestor collab Whatever’s For Us (1972), was released two years after Duvall’s film debut (in 1970’s Brewster McCloud). That record and its 1975 follow-up Back to the Night made Armatrading something of an underground folk-rock fave in England during the first half of the decade. However, it wasn’t until her self-titled third record was released in late 1976 that Armatrading finally broke into the UK Top 10, thanks to the success of her LP’s poignant lead single “Love and Affection”.
Both artists had, for lack of a better word, “arrived” by May 1977. In addition to the Cannes Best Actress prize, Duvall’s performance in 3 Women would earn her nods from BAFTA and the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Circle and even get her cast in, arguably, her most famous film: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Likewise, as Stephen Demorest noted in a 1978 article for the New York Times:
The turning point [for Armatrading] came… with ‘Joan Armatrading‘. The producer of that album, Glyn Johns (who has also worked with the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, and the Who) achieved a cushioned, intimate tone that perfectly suited her most outstanding songs to date. ‘Joan Armatrading‘ entered the Top 5 in England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. In America, the album did well enough to remain on the charts for 28 weeks.
Jenn Pelly concurred in her 2021 Pitchfork review:
The immaculate ‘Joan Armatrading‘ was like her ‘Tapestry‘ (referring to Carole King‘s blockbuster second studio album): not a debut, but where her confidence caught up to her brilliance, where her nuanced singing and dextrous musicianship — baroque balladeering, burning blues guitar riffs, touches of funk — came alive, dissolving genre lines.
Armatrading performs two songs from her eponymous album on Duvall’s Saturday Night Live episode that essentially bookends the show. After a few introductory skits, Duvall — indelible in a red blazer and sporting a Breck-girl ‘do similar to her character, Millie Lammoreaux’s, in 3 Women — addresses the audience thusly: “I first heard Joan Armatrading when a friend of mine played her album for me on a visit to England. I was very much moved by her voice and her lyrics. I know many of you hadn’t heard of Joan, and that’s why I’m pleased to have this opportunity to present [her].”
Armatrading takes over, leading into the first commercial break with a rousing rendition of “Love and Affection” and looking plucked from a Greenwich Village folk club in her off-white button-up and brown bell-bottoms. Near the end of the episode, she returns with the equally-rousing “Down to Zero”, the album’s heartbreaking yet hopeful opener: “She’ll take the worry from your head / And put trouble in your heart instead / But oh when you fall / Fall at my door”. Outshining Duvall is no small feat — the actress’ Southern charm and eminent watchability prove salves for the episode’s not-so-funny skits and the extra “oomph” that makes the funny ones really work — but Armatrading manages to walk away with the whole show.
Joan Armatrading (1976) soon became a staple of my Spotify account, especially in college, when I roomed with one of my best friends — a fellow Duvall admirer, Armatrading super-fan, and classic folk-rock connoisseur at large. Yet, I never felt compelled to listen to Armatrading’s other albums, probably because I was worried I’d be underwhelmed by what I’d hear. Joan Armatrading, with its energetic rockers like “Water With the Wine”, wedding reception slow dancers like “Somebody Who Loves You”, and the bonus of Duvall’s endorsement, was perfect to me, and nothing could match it.
Not to mention, most of the reviews I’d read online about her next album, 1977’s Show Some Emotion, were tepid. AllMusic’s Dave Connolly writes:
Retaining producer Glyn Johns and some of the same session players from her last record, ‘Show Some Emotion’ repeated that album’s chart success… however… the album sounds like outtakes from that effort. Gone is the smooth, honeyfied [sic] flow of ‘Joan Armatrading‘; the lyrics seem to lack a sense of meter, the songs occasionally rely on pedestrian R&B arrangements to move them along, and the buoyant melodies are few and far between… Overall, this feels like a step back after her last effort.
Ira Robbins of Trouser Press was somewhat kinder, calling Armatrading’s fourth song-set a “lovely… casual-sounding album,” but concluded: “it’s not among her best.” Likewise, Robert Christgau characterized Armatrading as “funny” and “real”, but described her lyrics as merely “ordinary-plus”. Needless to say, Show Some Emotion wasn’t at the top of my record-buying list.
On 19 July 2022, Armatrading announced on her Instagram account that she’d release her first-ever book of lyrics on 3 November, entitled The Weakness in Me, with the blurb: “I was born to be a songwriter, and it is something that I know, as long as I’m here, I will never stop doing.” Recalling Joni Mitchell‘s 2019 lyric book Morning Glory on the Vine and how it vastly deepened my appreciation for and understanding of her songwriting, I was compelled to revisit Armatrading’s music ahead of the release of The Weakness In Me and finally give the album that’s long lived in the shadow of Joan Armatrading a chance.
Visiting family in Connecticut on Labor Day weekend led me to a mom-and-pop record shop in Mystic, where I lucked out in nabbing a pristine first-pressing of Show Some Emotion for only $7. Later that week, I brought the album back to my apartment and lit a candle with an hour to kill, threw the record on my turntable, and splayed out on the living room floor.
The opening number’s folky sparseness deceived me. “Woncha Come on Home“ sets Armatrading’s warm, down-to-earth voice against a soft mbira, finger-plucked guitar, and little else — leagues away from the richly-produced folk-pop tones of her 1976 LP. She speaks to her lover, asking them to come home, where “every light is on / but all the rooms are empty / Except one.” It’s a tender rumination on domestic bliss that unexpectedly ventures into horror movie territory when Armatrading confesses: “You know I hate to be alone / And I’m alone / There’s a madman standing on the corner / And he keeps on looking at my window.”
Armatrading’s instrumentals, echoing the sun-dappled, cottage-core vibes of Clouds-era Joni Mitchell, mask this narrative creepiness well. Only after repeated listens did I realize the darker tones of Show Some Emotion’s otherwise innocuous opener. Of course, this tension between sound and story bespeaks Armatrading’s deftness as a songwriter and composer. The music’s there to appease and disarm you. Once you’ve let your guard down, she hits you with the deeper, more complex truths through her words.
The same goes for the title track, which follows “Woncha Come on Home” with a danceable burst of jubilant, jazz-flavored folk rock. Armatrading implores us to “show some emotion! / Put expression in your eyes! / Light up if you’re feeling happy!”, and the lively instrumentals effectively bolster her pleas. But she pulls a 180 in the last line of the chorus — “if it’s bad, then let those tears roll down” — without surrendering her rollicking sound for a second. In life, there’s a flip-side to everything, every emotion and experience, and Armatrading’s writing crystallizes that simple yet profound reality with uncommon candor and warmth.
On the subject of warmth: “Warm Love”, perhaps the album’s strongest cut, conjures the scent of a cinnamon candle and the feeling of a lover’s fireside embrace. Enlivened by amorous orchestral embellishments, Show Some Emotion’s third number proves a lush, autumn-tinged comedown from the summery maximalism of the title track, making her LP as a whole uniquely suited to the September/October seasonal transition.
There’s a similar come down on the B-side, as Armatrading gets our blood pumping with ebullient rockers like “Get in the Sun” and “Mama Mercy” before placating us with the tender “Willow”. Much like in Joan Armatrading’s “Down to Zero”, where she tells her unruly lover to “fall at [her] door”, Armatrading assures us: “When things get out of hand / Running to me … [I’m] willing / To be a shelter in a storm / Your willow / Oh willow / When the sun is out.”
Show Some Emotion benefits from its potpourri of genres, which makes for a sometimes heady but constantly engaging listen. Armatrading combines disparate sounds, rhythms, and playing techniques in the same way she mixes high-octane rockers with slow ballads and somber, even frightening lyrics with lighthearted instrumentals. The A-side, in particular, careens from spare folk to jazz-rock to buttery soft-pop before veering into funk territory with the brazen and pointed “Never Is Too Late”, which features some of the album’s best songwriting. “Alone, you turn your head around on your own / The order to the man one strong drink / Searching for that question / To give yourself some reason to talk to a stranger / Don’t be afraid, we all need someone who is on our side / Some things must not wait.”
Afterward, Armatrading soothes with the Carole King-flavored “Peace in Mind“, a piano-driven meditation on contentedness in the face of relational conflict (romantic, platonic, or otherwise). It’s a calming preface for the B-side opener, “Opportunity”, a hard-bitten blues number that brands the listener with burning background vocals by Pete Clarke and Joe Scott and searing slide guitar work by Jerry Donahue.
Armatrading swerves from one musical idiom to the next, and yet, Show Some Emotion never feels chaotic or inconsistent. It’s a surprisingly cohesive work, boasting even richer production than her previous album and balancing its kid-like musical adventurousness with artistic conviction and the command of craft from a seasoned pro. If Jenn Pelly opines that Joan Armatrading is Armatrading’s Tapestry, then I argue Show Some Emotion is her Music — an undervalued follow-up of equal brilliance that deftly experiments with and elaborates on the polished sound and style of its blockbuster predecessor.
Few works of art, be it books, films, albums, or otherwise, have achieved “perennial” status in my life, revisited year after year with an almost religious reverence. 3 Women starring Shelley Duvall, and Joan Armatrading, are among them. This year, Show Some Emotion joins the bunch.