Joan Armatrading

Secret Secrets

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Two years having passed since her last studio record, Joan Armatrading re-emerged with yet another producer (new wave veteran Mike Howlett) on Secret Secrets. Some of the material on here is very good, but the commercial momentum that had built up behind her during the early '80s was beginning to dissipate. The singles "Temptation" and "Thinking Man" are as catchy as "Drop the Pilot," and the message is more mature and upbeat this time, but the songs failed to make much of an impact in the U.S. It's hard to fault the music for the drop in commercial interest; Howlett's atmospheric production (honed during his work with bands like Berlin and OMD) is in line with the musical tastes of the mid-'80s. However, longtime fans will begin to notice some cracks, notably that Armatrading's voice is no longer the commodity it once was. "Strange" is the kind of ballad Armatrading would have owned a few albums ago, but here her voice strains to command the material. Musically, her acoustic guitar is completely lost in the mix (a disingenuous harmonica solo on "Moves" isn't so lucky), while labelmate Joe Jackson is brought in to play piano on the ballad "Love By You," a role normally reserved for herself. As a songwriter, Armatrading hasn't lost a step: "Talking to the Wall," "Persona Grata," and "Secret Secrets" are sure to strike a chord with fans. And the backing musicians are again exemplary, especially Pino Paladino (on fretless bass), Adrian Lee (on synthesizer), and a perky horn section that includes Steve Sidwell and Dave Bitelli. Yet the album does mark a slight decline in the quality (and quantity) of Joan Armatrading's music, even if the root of trouble isn't a lack of what to play but whom to play to. Of interest, the album's photography was done by Robert Mapplethorpe, which took some guts on Armatrading's part.

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