Happy 35th Anniversary to Joan Armatrading’s eighth studio album The Key, originally released February 28, 1983.
Though she was born in Basseterre, Saint Kitts and raised in Birmingham, England, it was music that took Joan Armatrading to different shores all over the world. Strikingly however, despite counting the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King as her contemporaries, Armatrading's impressive canon isn't as broadly recognized as that of her peers—and it should be.
The self-taught songwriter and musician's awe-inducing discography can be traced back to the lush and sparse Whatever's For Us from 1972 for the Cube label, conceived partially with one-time collaborator and fellow songwriter Pam Nestor. Later, Armatrading transitioned to A&M Records with her second LP Back to Night (1975). Her third record, 1976's self-titled Joan Armatrading, brought Armatrading her first big hit (“Love and Affection”) and put commercial clout to the critical scores she had gained through her two preceding LPs.
For the rest of the 1970s, Armatrading racked up a respectable amount of charters on both sides of the Atlantic with a sonic brew that enchantingly mixed jazz, folk, blues and soft rock. But, it was Armatrading's aural pivot on Me Myself I (1980), that really hit hard. Produced by Richard Gottehrer, Armatrading draped her spicy contralto in kinetic new wave colors, early ska flourishes and soul punch, all of it steered by her daringly penned narratives on romance. This secondary phase of Armatrading's sound came to an astonishing head with The Key, her eighth studio album, originally released on February 28, 1983.
Steve Lillywhite, whose production credit roster includes U2, his former wife, the late Kirsty MacColl, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Morrissey and XTC, among others, came on board to lead the sessions for this 11-track song cycle. Lillywhite and Armatrading had first collaborated together on The Key's preceding effort, Walk Under Ladders (1982). Additional production came courtesy of Val Garay, who also possesses an impressive stable of talent he's worked with such as Kim Carnes, James Taylor, Ringo Starr, and Linda Ronstadt.
The Key maintained the artistic frequencies of Me Myself I and Walk Under Ladders, the sound sharply drawn on post-punk, pop-rock voltage (“(I Love It When You) Call Me Names,” “The Key”) and soul-pop sourced from reggae and light blues influences (“Everybody Gotta Know,” “What Do Boys Dream”). And while Armatrading is backed by a studio band of considerable talents—one recommends a scan of the liner notes for a “who's who” of peak session player excellence—Armatrading flexes her own musician muscles as an adept guitarist (electronic and acoustic) and pianist.
Out of this collection of songs it is “Drop the Pilot” that is (musically) the most experimental jam present. By embracing a much more danceable tone, it lends the track an enviously funky backbeat that's clubby without pandering to the crasser elements of the Top 40 of the period. No wonder it became the hit single.
The Key's biggest difference from its predecessors was its slightly darker lyrical tone. Though her customary love songs are still probing and accounted for (“Foolish Pride,” “I Love My Baby”), there is more to find on The Key. “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” faces ugly emotional masochism in relationships head-on, whereas “The Dealer” is a skulking rebuke/story of the drug culture rampant in the music industry of the early 1980s. Though it's “Tell Tale,” a pointed attack on a seemingly unrepentant critic of Armatrading, that steals the show. It also gets to the core of Armatrading's then undisclosed sexuality as it predates her public “coming out” by a number of years.
Couched comfortably in an infectious melody, “Tell Tale” details another closeted individual attempting to out Armatrading, who then turns the tables on this person, a male figure, by threatening to do the same to him. That this song hid so openly among the other contents of The Key at a time when the LGBTQ populace, in both America and Europe, were under siege from staunchly conservative government legislature and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic is extraordinary. It also discloses the adversity faced within the community among its own members during this same era, relating to the dynamics of personal interaction depending on one's social status of being out or not.
These darker shadows among the lighter moments of The Key make for thrilling listening and clearly record buyers agreed. It became Armatrading's fifth (and final) gold seller even though its latter singles “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” and “What Do Boys Dream” didn't catch chart fire. The album also went on to secure two Grammy nominations in 1984. Thirty-five years have come and gone, but The Key remains an ageless masterwork. Its songs are as powerful and provocative today as they were then and prove that Armatrading's work is definitely in need of wider dissemination and discussion.