It sure feels like Janis Ian has been mostly forgotten all these years later. She was basically never mentioned in the various music things I consumed as a teen and my first exposure to her was the use of”At Seventeen” in an episode of The Simpsons. I don’t think I heard much about her again until Bojack Horseman used Nina Simone’s cover of “Stars”. Maybe it’s just where I get my music information, but I honestly didn’t know much about her.
But this album was pretty big, topping the charts in September 1975, on the strength of “At Seventeen”, which somehow only went to #3. So I guess it’s a lack of critical reputation that is why she’s less well known than some other successful songwriters of the era. (Also, she’s a woman.)
“At Seventeen” is less good than I remember it. I feel like when I first heard it, at an impressionable age, on The Simpsons I thought, “who wrote this?!?!” Now, 20 ish years later, I find the lyrics decent but the arrangement to be very coffee shop – just the faintest hint of a bossa nova type thing, but not enough to actually give it some idiosyncrasy.
And that’s generally the vibe I get from the whole record: Ian is a decent lyricist – perhaps she is a good lyricist – with a decent sense of melody, whose songs are drowned in ’70s singer-songwriter cliches, at least on this record. Every era has its weird musical manias, and putting orchestras on confessional songs played on a guitar or piano was one of the ’70s’ manias. Listening to this record 40 years later it’s hard to understand why there are so many instruments. Whatever emotional nakedness in Ian’s songs exist is mostly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of instruments behind her voice.
It is mixed well, though. I will give it that. Her voice is clearly the dominant instrument and the instrumentation often hovers in the background, so it’s not as if it’s drowning her out. (But still, that begs the question: why have it in the first place?!?!?!)
I’d love to hear an album of hers that is just her, or her and a trio or something.