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The Weakness in Me by Joan Armatrading

I’m a Joan Armatrading fan from way back. Her early music was a backdrop to deep conversations with good friends over a glass of wine. I still love those early songs – although before reading The Weakness in Me I had never listened intently to her lyrics, or considered the common themes. And I didn’t know that her most recent album – her twentieth – was released in 2021.

The title of the book refers to one of Armatrading’s most well-known songs and also reflects the emotional vulnerability described in many of her lyrics. Passion, frustration, yearning and disappointment are all evident, and she has often written about broken hearts and unrequited love. There are frequent mystical references, including references to prayer, to calling on Oya “the goddess of change”, and to cloaks of darkness. Armatrading understands, commiserates, and cheers us on: On a spiritual level there ain’t no mountain that we can’t climb … Lets go, we’re the people who win.

In the introduction, Armatrading describes herself as an “instinctive writer” who began composing songs at age 14. “The best feeling,” she says ”is having someone say to me that one of my songs helped them to understand their own feelings or how to express themselves to others.” She provides footnotes for a small number of songs, outlining further context or the inspiration for the lyrics.

The book is around 99% lyrics, and includes most (but not all) of her best-known songs. It is not an autobiography, although it does include a one-page introduction from the fiercely private Armatrading. A number of songs, however, have an autobiographical element, such as Mama Papa (2007) which tells of her birth “on an island in St Kitts”, her parents, and her early life with four brothers and a sister: Seven people in one room, no heat, one wage and bills to pay…

In a recent radio interview Armatrading explained that many of her lyrics are based not on her own experiences, but rather on her observations of others. She touches on this in the book’s introduction. “I write from observation,” she says, “about how people interact with each other and connect emotionally.”

It is these interactions and connections that she captures so well, such as in this excerpt from Single Life (2012): When I see two people [who] look crazy in love, a little bit of heaven [is] shining in their eyes.” Some of her lyrics are exuberant and joyful: I’m happy and I’m jumping over rainbows, dressed in yellow, got balloons and having big fun fun; elsewhere she tells of a happy-ending love story. The value of strong friendship is highlighted in More Than One Kind of Love (1980) – If you’ve been true to all who are true to you, you’ll make it, you’ll make it fine.

The lyrics are presented chronologically, from Conversation (1972) through to To Anyone Who Will Listen (2021). The Table of Contents identifies the year that each song was written, although if I’d been the editor I would have repeated the date on the page that each song appears.

The brief appendix includes handwritten lyrics to several songs (Down to Zero from 1976, for example), as well as handwritten scores. The endpapers also feature some of these images. There’s an index of titles and first lines to make it easier to find particular songs.

This book will appeal to people who appreciate Armatrading’s music and it would be a great introduction to her body of work for people not already familiar with it.

Readers drawn to poetry may see parallels with work by emerging poets such as Rupi Kaur, who addresses similar topics of heartache and sorrow. If you’re searching for a message to send to a friend who’s experienced a loss, who’s stuck in an unhealthy relationship, or whose spirits need lifting, consider quoting (and attributing) lines from one of Armatrading’s songs. If it’s you who needs affirmation or reassurance, there may be lyrics in this book that will inspire or soothe you.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Allen & Unwin


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