Jan Hellriegel – Sportsman Of The Year REVIEW

Jan Hellriegel's Sportsman Of The Year album cover
Jan Hellriegel - Sportsman Of The Year REVIEW


Jan Hellriegel – Sportsman Of The Year REVIEW

Jan Hellriegel has just released the best album of her storied career, and it’s a book, too. GARY STEEL blathers about it.


Jan Hellriegel

Since teen culture erupted like a hive of giant pimples in the 1950s – hey, I love b-movies, okay? – popular music has been all about youth.

In many ways that’s a great thing. Because it keeps it fresh, and allows successive generations to assert themselves and claim their own territory.

And lest we forget, before rock and roll the pop charts were dominated by cheesy Doris Day types who may have only been in their 20s but sounded like they were appealing to a grown-up demographic.

“Artists are expected to have shot their creative load by the time they hit their 30s”

The downside of the teen obsession, however, is that artists are expected to have shot their creative load by the time they hit their 30s. And if they do make it through to their dotage with adoring fans hanging on their every move, the chances are they’ll be endlessly churning out stagnant repetitions of the music they made in their glory years, and getting away with it.

Jan Hellriegel today

Jan Hellriegel has found another way. Sportsman Of The Year finds the Auckland, New Zealand-based singer-songwriter in her middle years. But on a creative high. And instead of falling into the trap of trying to mold herself into a caricature of her younger self, it’s a record th`at deals with aging, and the changes that brings (well, that and a raft of other age-specific subjects).

Sound boring?

That couldn’t be further from the truth. Because it’s not an album that rues lost youth so much, as explores with dignity and passion what it’s like being a more mature woman. And like the book that comes with it (if you want it to, and I think you do), Sportsman Of The Year finds her in a great, empowered space where she’s sorted out a lot of the issues that tend to plague the young.

“Sportsman Of The Year finds her in a great, empowered space”

If that sounds a bit humorless and preachy, then that’s my fault, not Jan’s. Because this is an album, first and foremost, of great songs well sung and beautifully played. You could completely ignore the lyrics and hum the whole thing and it would still rock. Because these are the kind of melodies that etch themselves in the subconscious almost instantaneously, but without giving in to the horrid current trend of a free orgasm with every chorus.

Jan Hellriegel’s Sportsman Of The Year album cover

I’ve always had a soft spot for Hellriegel’s work: from her early band Cassandra’s Ears in the mid-‘80s through to her brief stab at international success with the It’s My Sin and Tremble albums in the early ‘90s.

But Sportsman Of The Year eclipses her early work in every conceivable way. The song-craft and arrangements are more explicit. The overall sound is textured and reverberant and perfectly serves the songs (thanks for producer/musician Wayne Bell and cohorts). And Hellriegel’s singing has a strength and authority (and where appropriate, a fragility) that leaves those earlier records in the dust.

Her voice sometimes sounds a little like Patti Smith in terms of  presence – especially when she’s cruising along on those lower notes – but Patti was never much of a singer, and Jan is. And when she’s swooning towards a higher register she’s just magic.

“Sportsman Of The Year eclipses her early work in every conceivable way”

What I really love about this album is that it’s not just one style or sound. And it’s never boring or predictable. Each of the songs takes risks with shifts into changing moods or gears, but somehow it all holds together as one great cohesive whole.

Jan Hellriegel

And it’s a book as well, but don’t worry. While they’re designed to complement each other (the book’s chapters mirror the songs on the names of the songs on the album) the album works fine on its own.

The book is subtitled A Suburban Philosophy. And that’s the perfect title for a tome that mixes memoir and self-help. Normally, I steer clear of advice books but Hellriegel’s solutions to life’s barriers are so homespun and unpretentious and they worked for her, so who am I to complain?

For those who don’t know the story, Hellriegel spectacularly dipped out from what seemed like a promising career in the ‘90s and gave up her dreams to raise a couple of kids. Then she reinvented herself as a bigwig music industry publisher and finally – just when no one expected it – proved she has what it takes by making a mid-life musical comeback.

The stories of her early career missteps are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes just tragic. And she manages to navigate through it all with an honesty that stops just short of naming and shaming the characters in her story, ones that impacted negatively on her progress and state of mind.

“The stories of her early career missteps are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and sometimes just tragic”

More than anything, the book is an advertisement for positive thinking and – even more so – affirmative action. If you’ve got an idea, make that call, or go see that person. We’re all powerful, and with the right collaborators, we can make amazing stuff happen.

As a life-long introvert who easily gets overwhelmed in social situations, I can understand what she’s talking about. But it all still seems largely out of reach. So perhaps her homilies are going to work for some, but not all. Still, she’s inspirational and her story is fascinating and the book is beautifully put together, and designed with care.

As for the record, it’s not heavy on advice. But she does write songs about subjects that rarely get discussed: real life stuff that will probably sound alien to the young. But will ring more than a chord for those of us in our middle years.

  • There’s a load of activity around the release of Sportsman Of The Year. Checkout the RNZ podcast, and she’s got a concert coming up at the Powerstation on July 5. Oh, and don’t forget Witchdoctor’s Q&A with Jan here.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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