Hearts and Flowers

Imagine a woman wearing jeans and hiking boots, dispensing advice to the lovelorn from an office furnished in plastic and chrome. That might evoke the feeling of this 14th album by a not-quite-pop not-quite-star with a formidable cult reputation.

Armatrading’s voice — combining elements of folk and soul — is the hiking-boot side of her music. It’s husky, sensible, and blunt; it has a gritty sound, as if Armatrading had manufactured it from soil and rocks, with just the slightest touch of sunshine.

But she protests with it too much on Hearts and Flowers; she thrusts it into the microphone, as if she wants everyone to notice that it’s made from natural ingredients. Meanwhile, her pop accompaniments sound like the musical equivalent of that chrome and plastic office furniture. Synthesizers dance with a smooth, dry sound; drums and guitars boom out aggressively. The instrumental mix sounds metallic, despite informal touches of improvised jazz — sax and keyboard solos, for example, in a song called ”Someone’s in the Background.”

Voice and accompaniment are disconcerting together; the instruments are too unyielding for the vocal message Armatrading delivers with such inspirational fervor. But then, even on its own her message wouldn’t be compelling. Over the weaving pop rhythms of ”Can’t Let Go” she mourns the difficulty of love affairs that don’t work, yet can’t be given up; to the rock beat of ”Free” she sharply tells an ex-lover to let her live her life; in songs too numerous to list she expresses gratitude for love that seems real.

Those thoughts sound all too familiar; sententious talk about relationships has become a pop-music cliché. Such younger artists as Sinéad O’Connor, Jill Sobule, the Wedding Present, Kirsty MacColl, and the Sidewinders can rise above the cliché and talk about love with passion and intelligence. Armatrading used to be hailed as too sensitive for pop. Her insight and even her sensitivity — though not the intensity with which she proclaims them — now seem only average.

Hearts and Flowers
  • Music