JONI MITCHELL'S viewpoint has usually been first-person-singular, with the world seen as an incidental part of the examination of the quandary inside a relationship. In her new album "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the viewpoint seems more nearly general, less specific, and the stories she tells collectively yield some truths (or maybe they're only suspicions) that are social as well as personal.
There is still the question of how much romanticism balanced against how much "reality" is good for. us, but it is complicated this time out by the irony of what has happened to the settings, the environments-the city has paradoxically become the place primeval, while the country (nowadays the suburbs) has become the place where too much civilization is beginning to take its toll. Joni Mitchell shows us people trying to recapture certain irresponsibility or spontaneity - the ability to dance, to play -and they come off looking either a bit tawdry or frantic. Or she has them (us) looking for something through "lifestyle" affectations in New York, city of cities, or trying to beat back boredom and rage in Suburbia - especially this, I think. She has built a song around the Johnny Mandel - Jon Hendricks relic of jazzbo slickness called Centerpiece that deals not only with the problem of "living happily ever after" but with the problem of centerpieces-their having more to do with making an impression than with supplying nourishment.
It is a difficult album, you see, partly because Mitchell is not moralizing, not boiling a situation down so any right-thinking listener can interpret it in only one way. It is difficult too because it doesn't sound like anything we're accustomed to, familiar as we are with the machinery behind the popular song, nor does it go out of its way to be pretty or tuneful. The Jungle Line, for example; is about an asphalt jungle-but seen as something a beautiful madman such as the "primitive" painter Theodore Rousseau might have created ("Beauty and madness to be praised," she says in another song, about a movie-style greed for the root flavor of life). It is an experiment, a successful one, exquisitely lyrical images enhanced by almost frightening synthesizer whoops and warrior drums, and it doesn't mind being pulled out of the album to be considered as a separate whole. Most of the other pieces don't disengage from the overall context quite so easily.
Throughout, I am alternately struck by the notion that she has done little work on her melodies, that she has just ambled along the path of least resistance, and by the opposite notion (fostered by the delicacy of the tune to Shades of Scarlet Conquering, or that of Shadows and Ligh, that she is up to something too subtle for me to detect at this early stage in my relationship with the music. The lyrics, too, sometimes remind me of what Wilfrid Sheed said about symbolism: if the reader (or listener) gets it, you've taken an unnecessarily roundabout way of communicating with him, and if he doesn't get it you haven't communicated with him at all. That's just the trouble with symbolism, though, and certainly no reason not to use it. There's more to poetry than simple communication - otherwise telegrams would be literature. And so the appeal of Mitchell's metaphors lies in their richness, in how long you can continue to pull new ideas and fresh slants out of them, no matter how many of them came from her head, how many from yours.
I hope I've made it clear that this isn't much of a party record; you'll have to deal with it privately, as you would read a book. But it should keep you occupied for about as long as you want it to-and how often does "popular" music do that?
JONI MITCHELL: The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Joni Mitchell (vocals, guitar, piano, synthesizer); John Guerin (drums); Max Bennett (bass); Larry Carlton (guitar); other musicians. In France They Kiss on Main Street; The Jungle Line; Edith and the Kingpin; Don't Interrupt the Sorrow; Shades of Scarlet Conquering; The Boho Dance; Harry's House-Centerpiece; Sweet Bird; Shadows and Light. ASYLUM 7E-I051 $6.98, © ETS-1O51 $7.98, © TC5-1051 $7.98.