Janis Ian John Lissner - Essay

John Lissner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Between the Lines"] is one of those rarities—a best-seller that focuses on musicianship. Though not without its flaws, "Between the Lines" has substance and depth, qualities absent from Ian's adolescent career and her hit song of those years, "Society's Child," a bristling tirade against adult injustice. This precocious hit was followed by "Janey's Blues," "Honey Do Ya Think?" and "New Christ Cardiac Hero" which zeroed in on dishonesty, exploitation, lack of communication, even suicidal impulses. At 15-going-on-16 Ian became the urchin at large, pinpointing the hypocrisies of society, ever at the mercy of its mores, wounded by its snubs….

Her songs of the late sixties, lacking even a ray of sunshine, began to sound vaguely familiar; moreover, her accompaniment, often awkward, could not support her often powerful verbal images. No wonder that her career seemed to terminate at age 20.

In 1974, Janis Ian's "comeback" was launched with the release of … "Stars," a collection which got mixed reviews, but much praise for its title song, a vivid and poignant self-portrait. "Between the Lines" … reveals "Society's Child" as a grown-up, worldly woman. Along with several forgettable tracks, there are four, possibly five outstanding productions.

"Watercolors," a moving portrait of a flawed lover and a fading love affair, is the finest song in the album….

On "Between the Lines" Ian's lyrics are stamped with her old introspective brand of realism. With the exception of the mildly buoyant "When the Party's Over," Ian remains as serious as ever. Indeed, Ian is at her best when she creates personal scenarios centering on the social stresses and emotional crises, the sexual and romantic frustration experienced by many young women….

Ian's talent is still developing, imperfect…. [The] lyrics of both "In the Winter" and "Tea and Sympathy" skirt the edge of soap opera. "Lover's Lullaby" and "Light a Light" are pretty maudlin…. The title track, "Between the Lines," veers toward pretentiousness with its 1920's neo-Brechtian voicings, and "From Me To You" seems to be a rather tense reworking of Dylan's "It's Alright Ma." As a total musical package, however, "Between the Lines" is a strong indication of Ian's increasing potential.

John Lissner, "Janis Ian—Society's Child Grows Up," in The New York Times, Section D (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 7, 1975, p. 19.