Monday, October 1, 2012

Breaking Silence On The Greatness Of Janis Ian!

The Good: Lyrics, Vocals, Instrumentals
The Bad: Could be longer for me . . .
The Basics: Janis Ian releases an amazing album full of passion, horror and the importance of Breaking Silence, a close-enough to perfect album well worth the buy!

It has been a LONG time since I rated a musical album as perfect (10/10). Breaking Silence comes so close. Right off the bat, the truth of it is that Breaking Silence is most accurately a nine out of ten, maybe a little more, but it's not a ten out of ten and I'm not even sure I have a reason that it isn't a perfect album in my book and I'm not sure I need to justify it. But it falls just shy of perfection. It truly is an amazing album, but it did take a few listens before I warmed to its full grandeur.

The reason for my initial lag on accepting how wonderful the album is probably has to do with my own preference toward folk, away from country and needing a few listens to come to terms with enjoying the full range Janis Ian explores in terms of musical styles and types on Breaking Silence. Sometimes, we need a few extra listens, but Janis Ian does not disappoint on this album, one of her tightest, best written, most vocally impressive albums of her career.

With twelve tracks, clocking in at 48:51, I suppose the only legitimate gripe I have against Breaking Silence is that it's not as long as I would like. I could stand for every Janis Ian album to use the entire capacity of a compact disc to put out more songs as opposed to leaving any dead space. And this truly is the musical vision of Janis Ian; as the liner notes proudly note, there are no synthesizers, vocal limiters (I've no idea what those are, but I can assume) or sampling on the songs on this album. As a result, what we hear is what she wrote, produced, sang and played.

And most of the vision on this album may reasonably attributed to Janis Ian. Ian wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album. As well, she provided all of the lead vocals and is also the only one credited with acoustic guitar and piano, which are the dominant musical instruments on the album. Ian also is credited with co-producing, so it is inconceivable that Ian did not create the album she was looking to create with Breaking Silence.

And what an album it is! First, this is one of Janis Ian's most lyrically compelling albums. She mixes storysongs with beautiful poetics for songs that clearly define human emotions. Her vocals are soulful and exhibit an impressive range. Instrumentally, the album is a decent mix of up and slow tempo pieces, piano and guitar with decent accompanying bass and percussion where used. It is well-mixed and the song order makes for a cohesive and repeatable listening experience.

Of course, it all starts with the lyrics. Janis Ian is one of those artists who always seems to have something to say and it is impressive that she continues to improve on the writing front through Breaking Silence. Ian is a masterful musical storyteller and this comes through beautifully in her ode to holocaust survivors, "Tattoo." In that song, Ian sings a musical storysong with a clear, terrified protagonist who tells of her fears and liberation, "It gets darker every night / Spread-eagled out among the stars, she says / 'Somewhere in this tunnel lives a light. / Still my beating heart. / I have never known a man. / What man would want me now? / Am I still alive somehow? / If I can survive somehow, / tattooed' / Soldiers from the other side / Liberated them at dawn / Gave her water, gave her life . . ." ("Tattoo"). The soulful way Ian sings those lines makes her a credible voice for the voiceless and creates a mood both terrified and surviving.

She sings other storysongs, about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States ("Guess You Had To Be There") and about abuse ("His Hands") and they are all tight, descriptive and easy to empathize with. As well, Janis Ian sings songs about emotions and she writes and sings as an incredible authority on what it is to be human on Breaking Silence. She makes an anthem about hope ("All Roads To The River"), overcoming the burdens we face in life ("This Train Still Runs"), and betrayal ("This House"). She is an amazing poet and it is as easy to read the lyrics as it is to hear her sing them.

But by far, her best songs are the ones that capture universal emotions and express them in ways that others have not necessarily managed to. Take, for example, the sense of nostalgia that is often sung about when singing about long-term relationships. Ian makes the old new with such refrains as "Through the years we've been happy / Through the years we've been sad / And sometimes, feeling lucky / Was the only luck we had / But we always found some laughter / In the tears, through the years" ("Through The Years"). Anyone who has felt love and melancholy for what one might have had for the better portion of a lifetime can empathize and appreciate Ian's vision on the subject. She makes getting by musical and compelling.

But perhaps the most lyrically impressive is also one of the first songs on the album. "Ride Me Like A Wave" is easily one of the most sensual songs of all time and Ian's lyrics are positively beautiful and erotic. It's hard not to leap on a loved one when one hears "Chart my secret places / Navigate my shores / Map the ocean's traces / Lick them from my pores / Dry me with delusion and desire / Ride me like a wave / Cover me with spray / Promise you will stay" ("Ride Me Like A Wave"). Whew!

It is not only her lyrics, the magic of Janis Ian is in her presentation. On that song, she sings with a breathlessness that is shows what she is singing. She sings in a lusty whisper that has to be heard to be believed and she is able to maintain it the entire song. Similarly, Ian illustrates an impressive range with a clear, beautiful soprano voice on songs like "All Roads To The River," "Walking On Sacred Ground," and "Guess You Had To Be There." She goes lower on songs like "Tattoo" and "This Train Still Runs," but she is always clear and she has the ability to run up and down the scales with an effortless quality that is beautiful and the essence of an amazing vocalist.

Musically, Breaking Silence is a mix of upbeat-sounding pop tracks and ballads. For the songs that focus most on love and the storysongs, the sound tends to be slower, more melodic and focus on the vocals with the instruments simply supporting Ian's voice. Songs like "This Train Still Runs" open up to a richer sense of instrumental participation, including things like a harmonica that is noticeable to play alongside Ian's voice. As well the more upbeat songs also rely more on percussion and they certainly make a point with it.

Breaking Silence is bound to be enjoyed by anyone who likes folk-rock or light pop-rock music. One need not be married to a love of female singer songwriters to approach this album with eagerness; Janis Ian makes the listener fall in love with the raw talent she possesses and, indeed, when the album ends, all we wish for is more. It's a shame there isn't more on this one . . .

The best track is "Ride Me Like A Wave" and there are truly no bad tracks, though I suppose "What About The Love" might be a little more repetitive than some like.

For other works by Janis Ian, visit my reviews of:
Janis Ian
Between The Lines
God & The F.B.I.


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Wow. Thanks. I just saw this. Lovely! And the reason it's not longer is because we took a second mortgage on our house so I could make the album, and didn't have the extra money for the extra time!
    Janis Ian

  2. Wow! Lump in my throat if it actually is you, Ms. Ian! I don't suppose you might be willing (if you happen to see this) to authenticate your identity by replying with a comment that mentions the request I made (and you very politely let me know was not possible) for your upcoming show in Michigan in March?

    Assuming that it actually is you, I am exceptionally flattered that you have found my blog; I'm reviewing your works all month!

    As for "Breaking Silence," if you check out my standards and my index page at you will see just how slim company the album is in! I do not use the term "perfect album" lightly and my reviews are very much skewed toward the middle, so that this (and many of your other albums) score so high with me truly is a testament to your greatness.

    As for the time, when "Breaking Silence" was initially recorded, was it still on record or c.d.? Were there tracks that would have actually been a part of the album had you not been self-financing it?

    Thank you again so much for your comment!

    -W.L. Swarts