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Janis Ian: The Light at the End of the Line
by George Graham
(Rude Girl Records, as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/2/2022)
Back in the 1960s, the hippies used to say never trust anyone over thirty. Now those of the Woodstock generation are in their late 60s and 70s, and some of the performers from that period are still at work making interesting music, while others may be content to keep playing their oldies. On Mixed Bag, I occasionally do sets dedicated to the long-running artists who manage to remain vital, with careers extending something like a half century.
This week, we have another of those artists who emerged in the 1960s, and is still at it, doing notable work. But in this case, announced that her new album would be her last. It’s Janis Ian, whose new recording is called The Light at the End of the Line.
Janis Ian emerged in 1966 with her hit Society’s Child a song she had written at age 14, about an inter-racial relationship which some considered controversial, and for which Ms. Ian apparently took a lot of heat and even received death threats. Then in 1975, reflecting on that part of her life, she created her second big hit At Seventeen for which she won a Grammy award the following year. Over the course of more than 20 albums, she has created some memorable music, turning increasingly in recent years to folk influence, and sometimes with an activist or feminist outlook on the state of the world. She has also been outspoken about the record industry and the way she felt they treated artists, and thus has released some of her music as free downloads. And she is a writer of science fiction.
Like some of her other music, The Light at the End of the Line is often self-reflective on her life, career and the times in which she has lived. The CD’s package contains old photos of a teenage Ian juxtaposed with recent pictures.
The album is indeed quite a personal one. Several of the tracks are solo performances, and she writes that everything was recorded without editing. Among the instrumental contributors is bassist Viktor Krauss and Randy Leago on reeds. The result is, I think, one of the best albums of her career. It’s direct and honest and her lyrics are articulate and heartfelt. Her voice may not quite be what it was 50 years ago, but she is still in very good form.
The album opens with a very appropriate song, I’m Still Standing an expression of her durability despite the passage of time and its physical effects. <<>>
Her social consciousness comes to the fore on what is essentially a protest song, Resist taking up a theme she has visited in the past, of who women are judged by their physical appearance. <<>>
On the other hand, Ms. Ian created a song offering solace for a friend who had lost a child. Wherever Good Dreams Go is a solo performance recorded live. <<>>
One of the more distinctive sets of lyrics comes on Perfect Little Girl written for a fellow songwriter becoming a trans male. <<>>
Also done in a solo piano setting is a song called Nina about the singer Nina Simone, whom Janis Ian had known and knew to be a difficult person. <<>>
Ms. Ian writes that she grew up listening to all kinds of jazz, and that went into the style and atmosphere of Summer in New York, evoking a previous era. <<>>
Another articulate piece of lyric writing comes on Stranger a song about immigrants. Ms. Ian recounts that her grandparents were immigrants, and how that again become relevant in an era of Trumpist xenophobia. <<>>
The album’s title track Light at the End of the Line is a kind of valedictory. She writes that after years of what she described as the “violence and hatred” that she was subjected to after her song Society’s Child, she would look to interacting with her audience members after shows, which she says helped in the healing process. This song was intended to thank them, now that she would soon not be performing live anymore. <<>>
The album ends with a kind of spiritual song that Ms. Ian had come up with in the wake of the death of fellow songwriter John Prine. She said she found herself singing the line Better Times Will Come one day while doing laundry, and gradually fleshed out the song. She decided to seek contributions to the song on-line, and got some 200. For the recording, she decided to invite a bunch of friends to contribute parts, and it’s an eclectic bunch including jazz singer Diane Schuur, country artist Vince Gill, New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush, saxophonist Jeff Coffin from the Dave Matthews Band, and several others. The track stretches out to seven and a half minutes in a variety of styles from bluegrass to Dixieland. <<>>
If this is really going to be the last album by durable singer-songwriter Janis Ian, she has definitely gone out on a high note after a more than 55 year career. The Light at the End of the Line has some of her best songs in years, and the intimate setting, often just solo with guitar or piano, gives those songs extra impact. While her maturity is evident in her voice, her performances, all recorded with no editing, add to the album’s strength and honesty.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an “A.” Like many an album in the age of COVID, a lot of parts were recorded individually and remotely by the musicians at home. But it was all integrated well, and the album has good clarity and the intimate quality is preserved without needless studio effects.
With well over a half century on the music scene, Janis Ian probably merits retirement. But after her fine new album, The Light at the End of the Line, one would wish she might change her mind.
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