Thursday, September 09, 2010

Self-Discography #15 : "Whatever's For Us" by Joan Armatrading


"You came into town with your big ideas/You'll find out that life just ain't that way. ... Settle down, city girl, make life what it should be/Lots of laughs, all you want, that's how it ought it to be. But don't take my word, just sit back and you'll see."

There was no "a ha!" moment with Joan Armatrading. Not really. And yet I found myself drifting back to this lyric--the centerpiece of "City Girl." She seeped in somehow, like a lazy rain that soaks you before you even know you're wet. I first heard this, her 1972 debut, when I was in high school on a copied cassette my sister had brought back with her from college. At the time, I was dipping my toes into a kind of folk stream, testing the waters with Tracy Chapman, 10,000 Maniacs, even Phranc--many of these same artists, again, offered up to me by my sister, who would obligingly let her music-obsessed brother waltz off with her tapes and copy them. I was immediately drawn to what the album wasn't: It wasn't as spare as most folk albums I'd heard up to this point; it instead seemed to bounce off genres, with some tracks sounding almost like vintage Elton John and classic rock. It was not whiny, and yet it also wasn't entirely sure of itself. It wasn't political per se. It wasn't anything I'd heard before.

I was already in love with the sparklingly fierce piano of the lead-off song, "My Family," though I conceded immediately that I wasn't sure if the family in question was some hippie-ish extension of "everyone around you." Joan's voice comes in soft yet assured and then soars by the first chorus, embedding itself in your head. Or in mine at least. But I really wasn't prepared for "City Girl," and it was this song that nailed home the twin sensation of envy and understanding with just one line: "There's such a lot of pretense in this world" before launching into its chorus, which demands that life be enjoyed and not simply left to pass by.

Sitting on a scratchy carpet in my bedroom listening to this powerful voice, I learned a bit more about why music mattered. It made me feel. At least something. At last something. Coming on the heels of years battling depression, it felt good to feel anything again without it being accompanied by the fear of hurting.


I forget about "Whatever's for Us" for spells because I no longer have a copy of it. A few years slip by and then suddenly a lyric pops into my head, or the guitar and piano strain of a song, like the countrified strumming that starts "All the King's Gardens" which then nearly explodes with the vitriolic line: "Well you try to break me up, but I write it down as experience/Once bitten twice shy, but I'll make my comeback."

This is the song that ends the album--forceful, nearly mean in its story, and so not the kind of shy, shrinking violet folk singer paean that was in the ether at the time this was made. It crawls back into my brain now, in college, so I track down the CD via Columbia House. It's a poorly transferred copy, but the old tape is long lost and I listen to it late at night in my room as I type papers and stare out at the desolate blackness of the Vermont night. I discover the less immediately appealing songs that I skipped before, like the rollicking blues of "Mean Old Man" and the weird psychedelic sitar on "Visionary Mountains," which sounds less a song than a poem that might drift away into nothingness at any moment.

It feels like I needed to find it again. I've gravitated in the years since I first heard it toward more alternative rock, which can be so blatant in its forcefulness. I feel the nuance again, of seemingly simple music that still moves me, even if there really isn't a reason. I tell my sister that I bought the CD. She says: "God, I'd totally forgotten about that album."


Suddenly other people I meet know "Whatever's for Us." Friends I've had for years share with me that they, too, love it. We talk sometimes about what a gorgeous album it is--how it's stood the test of time. Cliche. Yet true. I feel an odd solidarity in revealing how I cried the first time I heard "Gave It a Try" as a teenager because it seemed--somehow, so unexpectedly--to say everything I wanted to communicate to my family. I chuckle quietly when a friend puts the sweet and gentle "Conversation" on a mix CD for me. And I've finally come to love the album's title track, perhaps the sparest, most traditionally folk-like song on the album with the obtuse lyric "Do what you will, say what you must, 'cause whatever's for us, for us," which seems to say to me, "What's happening--what will happen--all of it is exactly what's supposed to be."

I hear now that Armatrading herself doesn't even play the songs from "Whatever's For Us." I suspect it has much to do with the woman she co-wrote most of the songs with, who disappears from Armatrading's career as suddenly as she appeared. I find myself a bit sad that I'll likely never hear them live. I bristle when I run across old, dismissive reviews of the album, as well. But I also know now there are just some things that you never need to explain. I owe no one an explanation as to why this album has endured throughout so much of my life. But it seemed like I needed to say it.