"Oh, no. Is she still depressed?" So went the sentiments of a friend of mine after seeing Janis Ian's new album. Certainly, there's no pop crooner we'd rather see snap out of it, unless it's James Taylor. So let it be known that "Restless Eyes" is the closest Ian's gotten to high glee since adulthood robbed her of prodigy status.
Not that the Osmonds need be adither; pitying epics on the cruel lot of the sensitive young acne victim, there are no protracted mewlings about what a drag fame and wealth really are. It's as though somebody finally tipped her off: Either lighten up or wake up some morning as James Taylor.
The opening cuts of both sides are the strongest, melodically. "Under the Covers" is as playful a tune as Ian has ever written, and she sings it with a sweetness and clarity that fit the lyrics. "Passion Play" is a bit weighted down by socio-religious imagery, but the thoughtful, restrained instrumental backing provides a fine balance.
The general theme of the album is romance and its concomitant pitfalls, and in songs like the title track and "Dear Billy," the subject of marital bliss gone sour is covered a la Joni Mitchell's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." Ian is still spending so much time hanging around the third and fourth intervals of the scale that she might as well build a house there, but she's dropped a lot of her cabaret posing in favor of a back-to-the-roots folkie flavor, which does wonders for her confident vocla styling.
The only disaster on the album is "I Believe I'm Myself Again," which is supposed to attest to Ian's "sadly overlooked" sense of humor. The tune has a marvelously witty lyric and a jauntiness heretofore unencountered in the singer's demeanor. Unfortunately, she attacks the ersatz scatting of the chorus with a near-hysterical urgency, as if she's trying to exterminate the Roches with shrill imitation, and this literally ruins what could have been the album's showpiece.
Robert Shelton's laborious, pandering jacket biography/review makes the ridiculous claim that Ian "has never sung a line she hasn't written." If true, that may be why her "Sugar Mountain" is stocked to the peak with lyric cliches ("weep no more my lady," "love me 'fore I die," "lips like elderberry wine," and so on), and also why she may not have heard Neil Young's hit by the same name.
Still, the irritation factor of "Restless Eyes" is far lower than on any of her previous albums. Shelton also quotes Ian as wanting to "create a body of work, not a string of hits." Boiled down to its essence, this means that if she can't be Bob Dylan, she still wouldn't mind being Joni Mitchell.
There's room yet for that to happen, but like Mitchell in the '70s, Ian has made a major stride forward. She seems to have discovered that a perpetual state of blue funk is merely a pretension, not a requirement for poets, and that the ability to pen a decent pop song may even by enough.
The ALBUM -- Janis Ian, "Restless Eyes," Columbia FC37360. THE SHOW -- Sunday at 8 and 11 at the Bayou.