Previews of Joni Mitchell's first album for Geffen Records hinted at a return to the rhapsodic bloom of 1974's "Court and Spark," her most popular recording to date. While there's truth in that early assessment, Mitchell's new songs still bear the stamp of her more recent experiments with jazz instrumentation and vocal stylization, elevating "Wild Things Run Fast" beyond the cynical prospect of mere commercial retrenchment.
The studio lineups do opt for a fuller, ostensibly more pop-oriented ensemble sound than the skeletal chamber settings of "Hejira" or the fusion and bebop that prompted catcalls from the rock intelligentsia in the late '70s. Yet Mitchell retains specific traits from those controversial forays. Larry Klein's electric bass employs the thick chordal textures and fretless tonal slurs Jaco Pastorius brought to his sessions with her. Guitarists Steve Lukather and Michael Landau may bring a more pointed rock kick to her work than before, but their use of dissonance fits squarely within Mitchell's post-"Spark" harmonic palette.
Eccentric time signatures and the singer's own modal guitar figures, played on a warm and emphatically electric hollow-bodied guitar, also give the new songs their own flavor. But ultimately it's her singing and topical concerns that suggest this music's current vintage. The overdubbed vocal choruses and girlish asides may point back to the Mitchell of the late '60s and early '70s, but the romantic weariness and sense of mortality identify a sadder but wiser adult.
*Chinese Cafe* intercuts lyric fragments from a remembered jukebox (prominently quoting *Unchained Melody*) with intimations of a new generation gap - this time, between yesterday's rock & roll rebels and their own children. On *Be Cool*, Mitchell suggests that cynical gamesmanship is a means for romantic survival, advice that seems far removed from the ebullient lover of so many early songs. On *Man to Man*, she turns a hard gaze on her own lack of romantic constancy and the underlying spiritual dissatisfaction.
That track reunites Mitchell with one of her most publicized paramours, James Taylor, and the pairing works both musically and thematically as each singer's overdubbed choir calls and responds from opposite sides of the stereo mix. These and other touches suggest a level of self-awareness that sometimes teasingly hints at parody, an angle from which "Wild Things Run Fast" largely benefits. There's even a successful version of Leiber and Stoller's *(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care*, which succeeds in updating its message with an unexpectedly hard-edged, guitar-driven arrangement.