Saturday, 5 March 2011

Joan Armatrading - Love & Affection (1976/ No. 10/ 9 weeks/ A & M)

"I am not in love, but I'm open to persuasion."

Few opening lines are so lacking in confidence.

It's an emotionally naked song, not just in being about being on the cusp of having sex with somebody you're in love with for the first time, but in the way it takes us into the singer's inner life; solitary thoughts, reflections to bolster a fragile ego ("I got all the friends I need", thank you very much), doubt, fear... the thoughts then swept over by feelings which lie beyond rational expression.

This uncomfortable sense of inner life is supported by the melody and the arrangement. The mood established by the cat's cradle acoustic guitar in the introduction makes you think that you've been listening to something quiet, until you remember all of the details that were subsequently added; the brooding Jaws string section, sonorous percussion, the two sets of backing vocals, and that alto saxophone.

"Thank you. You took me dancing."

The object of the song is that uneasy figure, someone who you are sure is a friend, might be something deeper, but might not remain a friend if you articulate that wish to them. The complex interpersonal politics of such complexity - and what might be won - are articulated in the song;

"Now I got all
The friends that I want
I may need more
But I shall just stick to those
That I have got
With friends I still feel
So insecure..."


"With a friend I can smile
But with a lover I could hold my head back.
I could really laugh...
Really laugh..."

What's missing is an elemental force that should feel simple, good, entirely natural;

"Now if I can feeeeeeel the sun in my eyes
And the rain on my face
Why can't I
Feeeeee-eeeel love?"

(A word of praise for old-fashioned singing that has the confidence to hold a note here. This is precisely the sort of vulnerable song that you most dread being given an X-Factor-style doing-over.)

As the hour of reckoning comes closer and closer, both the song and the vocalising become ever more disjointed and ecstatic, finding joy and meaning in repeating the words for their sound and meaning;

"I can really love
Really love
Really love
Really love
Really love
Love love love love
Love love love love"

Two unexpected musical surprises occur in this song. The male hipster voice that speaks "Give me love!" at 1.45 is odd - and a bit silly - the first time that you hear it. I always imagine that this was a record company imposition, put in there to make the record fit more into a more specifically black, and more explicitly pop, soul idiom and to prevent the listener from subconsciously suspecting that its a song sung by one woman to another. But if you accept the convention that its an unconscious articulation of the singer's inner thoughts, rather than think of it as being the enthusiastic response of the loved other, then it doesn't jar.

The sudden appearance of that saxophone at 2.50, however, is crucial and glorious. A non-verbal articulation of the realisation that, yes, this is going to happen. It's evokes those moments when a tangible, physical, sense of emotion breaks through; crying, being held or kissed, sexual arousal, noticing that you're drunk by now. In their unshowy way, the vocals become unabashed thereafter; she's crying "You know what I like!" by the end.

It's only a small-scale story of finding somebody, but it always feels like a remarkably brave song to me.

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