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After a stylistic detour into roots music on her 2007 album Into the Blues, Joan Armatrading dives headfirst into rock & roll on This Charming Life, which finds the venerable singer/songwriter picking up an electric guitar and letting it howl. Armatrading produced This Charming Life and played all the instruments herself (except for the drums, manned by Miles Bould), and it represents the toughest and most aggressive music she's recorded since Walk Under Ladders and The Key in the '80s; the thick, distorted guitar tone on songs like "Love Love Love" and "Heading Back to New York City" suggests a hard rock influence that's never really made its presence known in her work before (especially since Armatrading is playing the solos herself), and the tightly focused wallop of the bass and drums moves this way past pop into something decidedly heavier. While the album's approach is surprising, Armatrading (who was 59 when this was recorded) takes to the swagger of rock & roll like a duck to water; her voice, always strong and full-bodied, is more than up to the challenge of sharing space with the guitars, and the force of the music is fully the equal of the passion of these songs. (The wary may be glad to know a few more pop-oriented tunes are on board, but this is still livelier stuff than most veteran singer/songwriters are offering these days.) Nearly 40 years after the release of her first album, Armatrading remains a masterful songwriter, and while this set lacks the thematic cohesion of Lovers Speak or Into the Blues, these 11 songs make it clear she still speaks with wisdom, clarity, and fire, and whether she's looking for a good time in the Big Apple, embracing the joys of real life, pondering the peaks and valleys of relationships, examining both the spiritual and temporal, or reveling in the beauty of her significant other, This Charming Life leaves no doubt that Armatrading has few peers in songcraft. This Charming Life might seem like a curious left turn for Joan Armatrading at first glance, but it demonstrates she can make her songs work is a wide variety of ways, and it's fascinating to imagine what surprises could still be in store from this vital talent.