There’s a certainty to what Joan Armatrading does. So much so that it almost brooks no contradiction. Not out of arrogance, but out of the recognition by her and us that this is how she does things, has long done things, and it’s worked pretty darn well hasn’t it?
From that commanding voice and the simplicity of her lyrical (but not, crucially, musical) presentation, to the way these new songs exist above, or beyond, the world of 2020 and 2021, and for that matter above or beyond her, Consequences comes at us on its own terms.
Whether singing in the first or third person Armatrading sings of characters observed: in love at an instant, in a trough of despair, in the satisfaction of established love, in reflection at the moment of a small relationship crisis. Just as there’s no shillyshallying around the possibility that she is singing about herself (she’s not, that’s not how she works) there’s little fussiness in her language, for she speaks with clarity as much as acuity.
And there’s little fussiness in these stories because even in the darker corners she brings a sense of experience that says things resolve, people settle, and if they don’t, well, life moves on. This never feels dismissive, like one of those “just get on with it” types, but rather the kind of wisdom you get side-by-side on a walk or sharing a task with a family elder.
It’s one reason why this album has a glow of positivity about it that isn’t forced. The other reason is that while Armatrading offers melodies that feels solid and seasoned, she builds them with imaginative arrangements that can comfortably accommodate low humming electronics, bass-prominent ska, a moody groove that implies heaviness, or an instrumental that leans into northern folk.
Armatrading is confident in all of these moves, and certainly is in control of her technique and writing. Across it all, her voice is a comfort as well as a leader, which is no small thing to balance: you trust in that voice as much as you trust in the path of each song.
Does all this sound polite but uncommitted? Yeah, I can’t really get excited about any of it.
Except for maybe Already There, whose repetition grated on me much more than is safe, but whose upfront hook is prime pop material, there’s no obvious reason to drag this album. It is solidly done with a degree of class. But I can’t deny that each time I played it and searched for a way for it to elevate, I came away empty-handed.
But hey, Joan Armatrading has long done things this way, her way, for a good long while, and it’s worked. Why should this time be any different?
A version of this review ran originally in The Sydney Morning Herald.