I’M UNDER strict instructions to make this Joan Armatrading review a little less like a love letter than its predecessors. Well it’s hard you know because her music touches me there (and here) but I’ll try, honest guv…
At least she’s helping me to dry the dewy eyes. She has moved in the needed direction: towards tough. If any biznis executive has thought of her as an MoR sweetie for the American market this should be sufficient discouragement. Not a string audible on To The Limit. She’s at her most rigorous and economic since Back To The Night.
Controlled. Too tough to be sad and too tough to be bitter which is, I’m sure, one of the reasons she gets through to so many people. She expresses a spirited strength which combines the real and ideal. Her songs are about (relation) ships that pass in the night, the strain and the pain, but she, or rather the imaginary figures she gives voice to, remains unborken. Laughing even: it’s the survivor’s rich merriment you hear in ‘Taking My Baby Up Town’ and ‘Bare Foot And Pregnant’.
The first is a quickfire tale over a straight-up rock and roll beat of a couple being stared at and catcalled for showing affection in the street. They hold their self-respect together and give the dead-heads defiance: ‘What we got is the best’. ‘Bare Foot And Pregnant’ is a dazzling put-down of the male sex, a companion piece for ‘Tall In The Saddle’. With the band polyrhythming away like a middleweight Little Feat she flies a vocal as subtly responsive to them as a kite to the breeze. This spunky lady is coming out on top: ‘You gave me babies/To you/That proves your love/The my hands with jewels/Bare foot and pregnant you kept me’. I’m afraid Ms Armatrading has nailed us again chaps. We wave the white flag and yet she has us surrender smilingly. Either we’re as dumb as we look or she is several perceptive jumps ahead of the mailed-first liberationists.
Another key-tone of To The Limit is Armatrading Aggro. ‘You Rope You Tie Me’ is all tension with Phillip Palmer, a guitarist I’ve never heard of before, playing ‘pizzicato’ grunts, as from an angry cello, which are exactly right. The song is full of movement and charge. The early verses are slow with Joan sounding as four-square earthy as Bessie Smith or Odetta: ‘You’re a lion in my path/In my light/’Scuse me/Don’t upset/Don’t embarrass me baby/Don’t show your body/Your body don’t make it’. Hang on to your trousers when she sustains that low-down ‘cos it will probably snap your braces. Then she stokes it up from determination to admonition: ‘You get too jealous/You patronise me/Let me get away’. There’s more of this teeth-grinding frustration in ‘What Do You Want’ with her gritty singing nicely offset by Quitman Dennis’ flute.
Hang about. This could get out of hand. I’ve just had a recount and discovered that I like every track (sorry guv) and detailed analysis could carry on for some days yet. To sum up…
Musically To The Limit is a small step within Joan’s known area of excellence. It’s very satisfying but there could be something more radical next time. In terms of lyrics though this is her most potent collection yet. Hopefully those quoted beforehand should give you some idea of the plain beauty and clarity of her writing now.
How about these for a perfect balance of directness and subtlety, reality and imagination: ‘I saw a star/Falling/Like an old/Hollywood actress/A neon sign/With just one letter showing’ (‘Wishing’); ‘I read your letter yesterday /It fell between the covers/And my bare skin’ (‘Your Letter’).
© Phil Sutcliffe, Sounds, 30 September 1978