Nominally speaking, Shameless, Judy Collins' first album for which she wrote all the original songs (with some traditional material included), is a sort of soundtrack to her first novel, of the same title, published shortly after the album was released. Shameless the novel is set in the music business, and it contains specific references to songs, some of which Collins performs on Shameless the album. For example, one of the major characters is a singer/songwriter named Julia Clearwater, some of whose biographical details parallel those of Joni Mitchell, and she has a hit song called "Melody"; Collins sings it here. In the course of the book, a hot rock group called the Newborns comes up with a song called "Shameless," and that's here, too. On the other hand, in drawing inspiration from her characters, Collins the songwriter seems to have been freed to write about herself. The novel's narrator, Catherine Saint, is a photojournalist who sometimes seems like a self-portrait of the author, never more so than in the song "Mountain Girl," which is supposed to be sung by Catherine, even though she's from Kansas, where there are no mountains, unlike Collins, who is from Colorado. (To paper this over, Collins has Catherine spend childhood summers in Wyoming.) And then there's "Bard of My Heart" (set to the tune of "The Streets of Laredo" ), which is clearly about Collins' son Clark Taylor and reflects on his suicide. But if the songs in general sound like they're about Collins rather than about characters in her novel, in part it's because they sound like Collins songs, not like contemporary pop/rock music circa 1994, when the book is set. Collins has largely abandoned folk arrangements in favor of synthesizers and programming, discreetly used, but the several songs supposedly out of the repertoire of the Newborns demonstrate that she hasn't been listening to any actual rock bands of the era; one certainly couldn't confuse these songs with anything by Nirvana. On the other hand, as Collins' songs go, they're quite good. The relationship to the book becomes more tenuous as the album goes on, with, for example, "Lily of the Valley," a story song about domestic abuse, having nothing to do with it. (Collins says she imagines the detective in the novel might have been inspired to a career in law enforcement by the song.) Neither does "Song for Sarajevo," which is being repeated from Collins' last album, Come Rejoice! A Judy Collins Christmas. It had nothing to do with Christmas, either, but Collins explains that she's a UNICEF spokesperson and she intends to keep sticking the song on each of her albums until the crisis in the former Yugoslavia ends. (That's how you can indulge yourself when you're recording your own albums and licensing them to record labels instead of having a term contract like Collins used to with Elektra Records.) Collins fans will find much to like on Shameless the album, and not only is reading Shameless the novel not required, it might actually be detrimental to an appreciation of the music.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann