Filed under: album, review | Tags: joan armatrading, matt barton, this charming life
This Charming Life •••
Each new Joan Armatrading release can be expected to impress with its top-notch musicianship, but what might surprise about This Charming Life, especially this late in the game, is how inspired and passionate much of it is. Following on from 2007’s Grammy-nominated Into The Blues, Armatrading fleshes out the blues influence with songs of real rock energy and vigour. Her rich, warm timbre is all-pervading on a selection of tunes that showcase an impressive stylistic diversity and a keen eye for everyday, yet often wonderfully evocative, detail. It’s a shame, then, that it’s something of a top-heavy experience, with most of the better songs taking up residence in the album’s first half.
The opening title track displays some lovely percolating guitar lines and Armatrading’s stirring lead vocal. The anthemic melody sits neatly atop a lively blend of guitars and strings and, while the second verse is slightly too bass-heavy, it stands up with the best of her classics. Lyrically, she demonstrates her knack for slotting in observation and dialogue with a poetic flourish on a line like “I know it sounds corny…but the truth is the shade that I choose to wear.” ‘Love Love Love’, meanwhile, has a synthy opening that recalls, of all people, Goldfrapp, before taking on a jazzy quality reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s early ‘80s records, in particular Wild Things Run Fast. From there it evolves into a strange, insistent, New Wave-accented tirade against a former lover as the narrator regrets her youthful inexperience in relationships.
‘People Who Win’ follows suit with moody low guitar lines and prominent drums. Despite a clunky lyric like “On a spiritual level there ain’t no mountain we can’t climb,” Armatrading gives a superbly impassioned, supple vocal performance and it’s hard not to get behind her as she cries, “If you think we’re gonna fail, then you’re on the wrong track / I can tell by the way that you’re choking for breath / you know you’re looking at people who win” – a threatening lyric delivered with customary precision.
Another highlight is ‘Heading Back To New York City’, a song of almost punk-like abandon, full of crashing drums and crunching guitars. After two minutes of a relatively straightforward, standard melody with a simple chord structure, the song kicks into another gear entirely with imaginative multi-tracked harmonies and the emotional lyric, “I’m going back to the place where I lost my heart”; here, Armatrading’s delivery softens somewhat, and it’s an effective move, lending the song an added depth and a new melodic avenue in which Armatrading can exploit her rich, mature tone.
It’s around here, at the album’s mid-point, that things start to sag a little. That’s not to say the material is leagues weaker – indeed, each has an interesting quirk in either the lyrics or the arrangements – but ultimately the songs don’t live up to the promise of their predecessors. ‘Two Tears’ lacks distinction with its chugging rhythm and non-descript melody, while the outdated ‘90s-style arrangement of ‘Goddess Of Change’ obscures some lovely guitar playing. ‘Virtual Reality’ is a slightly studied take on the effect of modern technology on relationships, while ‘Diamond’ is more successful, with its strange vocal overlaying and echoing effects.
After the funky ‘Best Dress On’, This Charming Life winds down with the emotive ‘Cry’, ending the album on a plaintive note. Beautiful chiming guitars set the scene for Armatrading’s nostalgic melody and desolate lyrics detailing the demise of a relationship; “Nothing you can do is ever gonna hurt like this,” she sings, with a beautiful pang of sadness in her voice; a line like “When did you stop craving for the nearness of me?” is characteristic of her wonderful ability for putting a new spin on a familiar theme, and an elegant note on which to conclude.
Without wanting to sound patronising, to be producing quality records almost forty years into her career is both impressive and commendable, and you can’t fault the energy and vitality that Armatrading imprints onto these songs. If the quality of the first few songs had been sustained throughout, This Charming Life would potentially rank among the high points of her career. Still, there are enough highlights and winning tunes here to keep fans happy and it’s another solid entry in the hefty Armatrading catalogue.
UK release date: 22/03/10; www.myspace.com/joanarmatradingmusic
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