ELEVEN years ago Joni Mitchell was a 21-year-old Canadian who worked in Toronto coffee bars. Eight years ago she rocketed to fame when Judy Collins recorded her composition “Both Sides Now” and today, in 1975, she is recognised as one of the finest singer/songwriters in the world.
This week her latest album is released and it shows signs of a remarkable change in direction. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” (Elektra/Asylum) is an album to be treasured but it is far too complex to be appreciated at one sitting. The album does not contain an obvious hit like “Big Yellow Taxi” or a standard like “Woodstock” but it is probably the finest record Joni Mitchell has ever released.
Miss Mitchell has recruited fellow superstars James Taylor, Graham Nash and David Crosby for this album as well as several excellent musicians from Tom Scott’s L.A. Express and The Jazz Crusaders.
The uniqueness of the record probably owes a lot to the empathy between the musicians involved. Joni Mitchell has worked in a folk context for most of her career and recently through her work with Tom Scott has shown her talent for jazz. What this album shows is that she is combining the two influences into a unique style.
When the young girl in Canada started to teach herself guitar from a Pete Seeger Instruction Record all those years ago it’s pretty certain that her parents had no idea that she would evolve into one of pop’s most consummate musicians. Joni Mitchell is a natural. She plays guitar, piano, ukelele and Appalachian harp with her immense skill and uses her pure, sensual voice as a complementary instrument. On her new album she adds Moog and Arp to her repertoire and exploits her superb vocal range to a greater extent than ever before. The effect is stunning.
Joni Mitchell’s intricate rhythms have always been the hallmark of her distinctive sound and on several of the songs on her new albums these rhythms show new depth. Technically her music is becoming far more sophisticated and she is becoming a jazz-orientated artist whose only link with her folk background is her poetic lyrics.
Apart from the beautiful “Sweet Bird” her new album steers well away from the type of music we have come to know and love. Joni Mitchell is seeking and finding new horizons. She is evolving into an artist who records tone poems not songs and the result can be occasionally disturbing. On “The Jungle Line” her Moog and some pounding drums paint an abstract, menacing picture and on “Shadows and Light” her own multi-tracked harmonies provide a heavenly choir effect which is as shocking as it is moving.
In the middle of a witty song called “Harry’s House” she breaks into a version of the Mandel Hendricks jazz tune “Centrepiece.” On one track we see the two sides of her formidable talent fusing into memorable music. When she swings John Hendricks’ lyrics against counter-point piano she is suddenly a great jazz singer. The comparison is not meant to be irreverent but Ella Fitzgerald has rarely sung better.
Most of the rest of the album sees the two sides of her talent coming together in one cohesive style. Joni Mitchell is a tremendous talent and “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” shows her talent is expressing itself in new musical forms. She is now a major singer/songwriter with a totally unique style of presentation. When some historian of 20th century music writes the Joni Mitchell story this album will be hailed as a musical breakthrough.