For an artist well into her fifth decade of writing and recording music, Joan Armatrading has remained more energized and prolific than singers half her age. Following a trilogy of albums devoted entirely to specific genres -- 2007's Into the Blues (blues), 2011 This Charming Life (rock), and 2013's Starlight (jazz) -- a collection of songs composed for a production of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, and a live album documenting her 18-month solo Me Myself I world tour, the British songwriting icon returns with Not Too Far Away, her first un-themed studio album since 2003's career highlight Lovers Speak. Like that album and a good portion of her canon before it, Not Too Far Away is chiefly concerned with various aspects of love and affection as Armatrading unburdens her soul's contents with the frank and approachable candor that is one her hallmarks. Her reliability not only as a writer but as a singer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist, has become a key part of her narrative -- especially in the second half of her career -- and she once again applies these talents, not only producing the album, but playing and programming every instrument and arranging the strings for her only guest artist, the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Opening cut "I Like It When We're Together" is classic Armatrading, pairing heartfelt melodies with smartly crafted rhythmic pop. Likewise, the strident "Any Place" and effervescent "This Is Not That" both recall the bright hooks of her early-'80s new wave output, albeit with a softer edge. That said, Not Too Far Away is by no means a throwback to any earlier phase of her career, but rather a continuation of her shockingly consistent creative expression that has been ongoing since her 1970 debut. That Armatrading is still writing quality songs in 2018 is no surprise, but the single-mindedness of her vision and her doggedness to continue maintaining all aspects of are genuinely impressive.
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