When an artist releases something as profoundly moving as Lovers Speak, critical acumen doesn't mean a damned thing. Joan Armatrading's first album proper in five years is a startling testament of artistic integrity, searing emotional honesty, and musical accessibility and sophistication that is literally unmatched by anything on the current musical scene. In fact, the only comparable album from 2003 is Annie Lennox's Bare. But where the latter is an album of confessions and exorcism, Lovers Speak is an unflinching look at the language of love from all sides. It is an investigation into the experience of love, its languishing and loss, and the redemption it is capable of rewarding to those who persevere and refine themselves through heartache and acceptance and tolerance. For starters, Armatrading, who has been known to consort with producers like Steve Lillywhite and experiment with song forms radically, decided to bear the weight of her own production in the chair and on the floor: she arranged and played everything herself. It's as if the emotional and physical and spiritual states explored here are so personal, so full of instruction and transcendence for the artist, that she had to carry them all upon her back as they flowed from her pen, hands, and heart, giving them utterance in the grain of her voice.
The title track speaks of the symbolic and actual language of love as if it is a series of mysteries that can only be translated and exchanged among those who participate. "Physical Pain" is a ballad that assumes the consequences for telling lies in the space of love. One can easily picture Peter Gabriel recording this for the Us album. The asymmetrical polyrhythms in Armatrading's guitar playing propel a piano and organic percussion into an anthem that offers the truth of instant karma. "In These Times" is the darker side of John Lennon's "Imagine"; it is just as spare, with piano, bass, and strings accompanying the ache in Armatrading's lyrics and delivery. It is easy to imagine Gabriel recording this song as well. "Waiting" is the most desperate folk song ever written about being the one left, all night alone, while the beloved is adrift in the sea of night. The dawn comes cold, slow, and gray, turning the protagonist from the angry to the worried to the lovesick. "Prove Yourself" is almost a country-rocker, and is the only sensible update to Bob Dylan's "Forever Young." The album goes on like this for 14 tracks, turning over and in on itself with gorgeous pop, folk, and jazz forms, interstitially lacing, crisscrossing, and blending as the emotions so contradictory and tempestuous assuage, confront, and caress one another. But as the album closes with "Blessed," the underlying theme is the gratitude to feel at all in a time when emotion is snuffed out in favor of production, loss, grief, and rage; the simple fact that one is breathing and able to experience what is placed in the path is reason enough to live, and yes, to continue to try to love once more. Lovers Speak, in all its eclectic, musical, and lyrical diversity, is poetry of function and form -- a masterpiece that belongs at the very top of her shelf and should be a contender for pop album of 2003.