Janis Ian did not so much burst upon the music scene in 1967 as stand forlornly at its periphery, somberly reminding us that everybody was NOT somebody's baby, and life was not only the sunshine of the summer of love - awkwardness, loneliness and pain lurked in the shadows. She was, as a sixteen-year old folk singer, "Society's Child" who sang about those who accepted the idea of racial equality but could not handle the reality of a white girl in love with a black boy. Her star rose and fell with the popularity of folk music, and Ian made her first "comeback" in the mid-seventies with the hauntingly heartbreaking "At Seventeen", a song that cast her in the role of spokesperson for all those who were not invited to the dance, but were forced to watch its reflection in a cracked mirror.
"Somewhere out there
Are millions just like me
Homesick for Eden
Heartsick at the memory.'"
On her latest release, Hunger, Janis Ian explores the emptiness in many aspects of our existence, spaces between right and wrong, between black and white, between individuals in strained and broken relationships; it is within the limitlessness of these spaces that we seek to build connections between one another, to eliminate the hunger, both spiritual and physical, that gives rise to our very human condition.
Hunger begins with "Black And White", a reexamination of the fight for racial equality. A soft yet persistent militaristic drum-beat underscores the lyric as a gravel-voiced guitar evokes the anger and frustration of the singer who concludes that 'it's all gone to pieces' and we are still far removed from racial reconciliation. A glance at any newspaper would force one to agree with this conclusion. From macrocosmic anguish, Janis Ian moves into the microcosm of adultery with "On The Dark Side Of Town". Here, a woman ends an affair with a serial cheater after empathizing with his wife and child. It is an interesting twist on an age-old theme, enhanced musically by a hint of Spanish guitar and a liltingly reflective vocal.
Miss Ian moves from the subject of giving up what she shouldn't have to not getting what she really desires on "Might As Well Be Monday". A jazzy and, at least for this artist, upbeat commentary on how the whole world seems to be invited to a party on the weekend - except the loveless, rejected vocalist. The song jangles the nerves and borders on distorted instrumentation, yet is strangely enjoyable. In a startling antithesis to this cacophony, Miss Ian follows with the haunting, achingly beautiful "Getting Over You". The line-up of recording artists wanting to cover this simple yet evocative lost-love song should be extensive as the song lends itself to universal performance. An overwhelming sadness is conveyed effectively by the wounded singer as she expresses the universal pain of the ending of a love affair; stark acoustic instrumentation and a pure vocal express her pain profoundly. A second version of this song concludes the CD, but the addition of lush strings is beyond redundant as the first version approaches perfection.
Certainly the thematic centerpiece of this opus lies within "Searching For America". a lengthy exploration of the tragedy of the American dream. On a very literal level, the song explores the hardships and failures of the immigrant experience as hopes and dreams are smashed upon the rocks of reality; it is not too far-fetched to suggest that the song is about the failures we all encounter in life itself; Miss Ian suggests that we will eventually rise above the tragic unfolding of our lives - we will die. The eight minutes spent listening to her longing vocals pass all too swiftly. The song's despair is lessened by the feeling that we all share this voyage, finding solace in the search even if the holy grail of dreams-come-true is unattainable.
The title track is a litany of the many kinds of hunger produced by love. Miss Ian sings of the gnawing physical hunger of one lover for another, but also of the existential hunger of one soul for the completion it can only attain by merging with another. The song is presented as a pure Janis Ian folk song one notch below melancholy on the angst dial. But all is not bleak in Miss Ian's artistic vision; "Welcome To Acousticville" is an accomplished acoustic blues number, presented here as a live recording that is not without a wry sense of humor; the piece explores the unpredictability of whom fame will chose in the world of the blues artist. The singer handles the vocals with emotive dexterity while the instrumentation, guitar and bass, is understated, yet entertainingly effective.
"Honour Them All" finds Miss Ian stylistically entering James Taylor territory with reflections on the family; for better or for worse, we are what we are because we have been made that way by our mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, and they may be the only refuge we have when battered by the storms of our daily lives. The song is pure folk, and reflectively enjoyable. On "Empty", the theme of hunger again is addressed, but this song falls somewhat flat and rather short of its mark when compared to previous works, both on this CD and earlier ones. Nothing new is added to her thesis as Miss Ian uses a moderately paced jazz influence to evoke lost love. "House Without A Heart" is a soft folk-rock song that also touches on the same territory where others including the artist herself have often trod, but does not add anything new to the exploration; the song is pleasant enough, but seems to serve as mere filler on this disc.
The penultimate song, "Shadow", finds the mark once again. It is elemental and elegant in its presentation - a wistfully forlorn vocal clinging to an austere guitar accompaniment. Thematically, this song is the antithesis of "Wind Beneath My Wings": the singer stands earthbound in the shadow of someone with the courage to fly. Wishes and dreams, and even the inspiration of others, are not enough to make our spirits soar if we will not leave the shadows. Janis Ian is all too familiar with the shadows, in both her personal life and her musical career. No stranger to the come-back, she has come back once again into the spotlight, this time with a collection of songs that explore the hunger of the human condition and the spaces between us all. She takes us with her on her introspective journey with an illuminating array of insightful songs. She hits her target so accurately, and so frequently, that this reviewer forgives her for the occasional miss.
-- D. Malcolm Fairbrother