Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Joni Mitchell's most ambitious album, is a four-sided epic poem in which her old themes of personal corruption, American decadence, and the fall of man come together in a conscious synthesis. The measure of her accomplishment is that she almost pulls it off.
Over the years, Mitchell has gradually earned consideration alongside the great American poets. But where Whitman, Crane, Williams, and Ginsberg sang democratic ideals, where Eliot and Auden embraced Christianity and Stevens the imagination, Mitchell's epic is solitary and pessimistic, beginning and ending in the twilight of her own erotic obsessions. In pop, Mitchell's closest cousins are Leonard Cohen and Jackson Browne, both more circumscribed artists. Her sensibility was also presaged in the films of Joseph Losey and in the Antonioni trilogy-L'Avventura, La Notte, Eclipse-Which visually celebrated the "decadence" it lamented. So it is with Mitchell's songs. They exalt the erotic dreams whose inevitable fragmentation they detail. But where the films had a Marxist-chic subtext, Mitchell's art is solipsistic, anchored in the psychological stereotype of the sexual romantic.
Mitchell is the prototypical contemporary sexual pilgrim. Rooted in the erotic dance, the moral dialectic of her verse echoes the interior debates of a lapsed Puritan, relativistic intellectually but animated spiritually by a sense of sin. Around the time of her fourth album, Blue, Mitchell must have given up on finding a permanent ideal lover and decided to "marry" artistic immortality instead. Since then, she has amassed the most impressive body of work of any post-Dylan singer/songwriter, elaborating the free-form narrative ballad form that Dylan thrust into popular song and polishing a melismatic melodic line more flexible than Dylan's and many times more sophisticated. Mitchell's finest verse-music fusions on Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter represent an incredible formal achievement. Whole poems scan so freely one would hardly suspect they were song lyrics, and although some melodic accessibility has been sacrificed, "Amelia" on Hejira and "Cotton Avenue" on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter stand up as great pop and jazz tunes. And where Dylan avoided the challenge of the modern recording studio to
studio to embrace an abstract expressionist aesthetic of record making, Mitchell sought and found studio techniques that would reflect and heighten her restless temperament: Based on her own rhythm guitar, Mitchell’s "sound" is at once stark and dense, a montage of jazz, folk, pop, and rock in which folk stands for purity and jazz (in a regrettably glib equation) for sleaze and corruption.
On Hejira, her most perfect album, the combination of Mitchell's agitated rhythm guitar and Jaco Pastorius's responsive bass found the exact musical equivalent of her hypereroticism. But like The Hissing of Summer Lawns, the album before Hejira, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter finds Mitchell trying to legitimize her "fallen woman" status through an academically "respectable" pursuit of myth, and compromising some of her candor and spontaneity-in the process. The core of the album comprises two production numbers that deal with the fall of man from opposite geographical perspectives. In "Paprika Plains," a 16-minute dream song occupying all of side two, Mitchell imagines a precolonial eden; when Indians were the only prairie dwellers, Its center is a meandering symphonic meditation in which Mitchell twaddles around on the piano while the London Symphony Orchestra saws off a bad pastiche of Ives. Mitchell simply lacks the training in piano and composition to create conservatory-style music, and except for a jazz-rock coda, "Paprika Plains" could almost be a travelogue soundtrack. But its companion piece is more successful.
On side three, "Otis and Marlena," "The Tenth World," and "Dreamland" journey to and from a tropical eden, Again Mitchell fails to evoke the pristine and the primitive - Airto's slick, chic drumming on "The Tenth World," a six-minute transition consisting of South American chant and percussion, suggests a Brazilian tourist ad - but the journey allows her to unleash a dazzling barrage of poetry that wallows in white imperialist decadence: “The golden dive, the fatted flake/and sizzle in the mink oil," she writes in "Otis and Marlena," In "Dreamland," Airto's drum
becomes the beat of a pep rally where the chant is a jingly
montage of racist images and quasi-ads, and the result is Mitchell's greatest third-person song: a frightening, funny parody of how television and advertising corrupt ideas by turning them into commercial products with a putative erotic value. This is stuff Mitchell knows to her bones. Sexual corruption may be the metaphor for material corruption, and Mitchell makes the most of it, warping every syllable into a hooker's come-on, obviously enthralled by the rotten opulence she excoriates. She is herself, after all, one of the ultimate products of imperialism: a jaded Hollywood star.
On the first and fourth sides are Hejira-style autobiographical songs. "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," a brilliant but pretentious tour-de-force, weaves parallel images - eagle and serpent, plane and train, spirit and flesh, woman and man-while interpolating fragments of "The Star-Spangled Banner" into its melody, but lacks the brittle, furious frustration of "Dreamland." Mitchell is more convincing when not congratulating herself on her formal dexterity; in the album's most perfect song, "Off Night Backstreet," she meets an old lover and titillates herself with the fantasy that he's her pimp, wheedling him in the sultry tones of a cunning prostitute.
Similar images run throughout the album: The couples in "Otis and Marlena" and "Dreamland" are pimps and whores in spirit, - if not by trade. Sexual prostitution becomes Mitchell's ultimate metaphor for exploitation and imperialism. In a final gesture, she mockingly reverts to her early acoustic style. "The Silky Veils of Ardor," a hybrid of "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Come All You Fair and Tender School Girls," is turned on its head by lyrics in which Mitchell condemns love as "a killing crime." Sounding forlorn and cynical, Mitchell dishes out advice like Madam Eve presiding in the great American whorehouse: “It’s just in dreams we fly," Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter gets off the ground about half the time: As epics go, that's not half bad.