The significance of this album is easily explained: it's ambitious as hell; a double-record set of staggering depth, complexity and musical scope from one of the most talented artists working in pop music. It is also the album which will reveal Joni Mitchell's "singer/songwriter" tag to be shamefully inadequate. To those appellations, we most add "composer" and 'musician": if you've ever thought that "Both Sides Now" and "Help Me" are what Joni Mitchell is all about, listen to her guitar work on "Cotton Avenue" or "The Silky Veils of Ardor," her piano playing on the epic sixteen minute "Paprika Plains" and the intelligence behind the arrangements of the above tunes and "Dreamland." There is so much on this record it's going to take months perhaps even years to absorb it all. (If that sounds ridiculous, think back on how long it took you to digest Dylan's BLONDE ON BLONDE or even the Beatles' WHITE ALBUM.)
If DON JUAN'S RECKLESS DAUGHTER is "about" anything, it is duality: the split-tongued spirit which reveals itself on side four's title track. It is about the serpent- "fighting for blind desire" and the eagle- "for clarity" It is about dichotomous reality: "self indulgence to self denial/man to woman/scales to feathers/you and I" It is also about dreaming. and being painfully awake.
The spirit/flesh duality crops up for the first time on the album's opening cut, "Overture/Cotton Avenue." It opens as an ethereal, free-form duet between Joni's arresting, metallic acoustic guitar work and her airy voice, double and triple tracked, soaring high in a vocal reminiscent of Flora Purim or Milton Nascimento. Then, in stark contrast to this shimmering voice, comes Weather Report's Jaco Pastorious, entering with a thundering. sensual bass, adding a throbbing urgency to this mythical, sylvan scene. After establishing itself as king of this musical spirit world, the bass is joined by John Guerin's drums and the song jumps from an abstract jazz feel into the breezy and melodic "Cotton Avenue", a down-to-earth song with the cool R&B feel of a Harlem juke-joint in the 1930's. Pastorlus' bass is the only reminder of the realm visited in "0verture."
With barely a second to breathe, the musicians charge into the ego-world of insecurity on "Talk To Me." Joni attacks her guitar with a frantic desperation which is echoed in Jaco's glistening bassleads. "You can talk to me like a fool," she sings "Shut me up and talk to me." It's a crazy, dizzy song- straight-forward and completely anti-introspective - filled with Joni's intriguing and rather odd humour.
"Jericho" slows things down again-and introduces for the the first time Weather Report's Wayne Shorter on spell binding soprano sax. (Where's Joe Zawinal?) Not surprisingly, teaming him with Pastorius results in a bit of absolute magic; an intense rhythmic counterpoint that threatens to break loose into improvisation of the sort on "Overture." Even Joni's lyrics yearn for this sort of release: "Let all these dogs go runnin' free/the wild and gentle dogs/kennelled in me." Those dogs are unleashed on the next side.
'Paprika Plains." which takes up the entire second side, is, in many ways. the album's musical and thematic epicenter. It confronts the eagle/serpent, dream state/waking state dualities head on. Opening from the perspective of herself as a naive child, Joni uses the experience of North American Indians as a metaphor for a universal concern-the clash between the spiritual and the real, the holy and the blasphemous. Her piano and voice introduction. which has a slight show-tune feel to me, spells out the Indians' dilemma plainly:
But when the church got through
They traded their beads for bottles
Smashed-on Railway Avenues
And they cut off their braids
And lost some link with nature.
The bulk of the song is a huge instrumental exposition by Joni on piano accompanied by a full orchestra (arranged by Michael Gibbs). But this middle is not strictly instrumental, for the song's lyrics continue in the form of a long poem on the record jacket-an eloquent dreamscape mixing concrete and transparent imagery in a continuation of the Indian theme. The music is alternately sonorous and dissonant, lush and simple, smooth and choppy. Curiously, I found it all a bit overbearing until l heard it on a car radio not too long ago.
The instrumental passage completed, the opening melody reappears, only to give way to crashing drums and a two-minute forty-five second coda featuring Guerin, Pastorius, and Shorter. It is a peaceful, expansive close that lends the entire piece a strange sense of balance and coherence.
On side three we jump back to the world of surfaces with "Otis and Marlena," a scathing portrait of Miami Beach and the type of people attracted to it. "And the neon mercury stained/Miami sky/It's as red as meat/It's a cheap pink rose."
The song fades slowly, eeriely into "The Tenth World," an all-percussion instrumental that sounds like a Haitian excorsism. It is clearly intended to serve as a physical means of re-entering a spiritual plane. I find seven minutes of this rhythmic frenzy about four minutes too long, but it does function as an effective bridge between "Otis and Marlena" and "Dreamland," which ends the side. In the latter song, Joni, with sultry vocal support from Chaka Khan, is backed only by a percussion ensemble; but this time, it is not furious abandon of the sort we hear on "The Tenth World," but an even, swinging beat.
Side Four's "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" offers the key, as I've said, to the duality theme that permeates the record. Whether you choose to interpret Joni's Don Juan as the brujo of the Castaneda books, the fabled lover or some God-head of her own creation is really not important: it all hinges on the serpent and the eagle.
"Offnight Backstreet" follows, a tale of bitter and jealous love as far removed from the eagle's "clarity" as "Talk to Me" on side one. The record ends beautifully with "The Silky Veils of Ardor," which features some shimmering Fahey-esque guitar work under a lovely, if not particularly melodic vocal. And as if to bring the entire album into ambiguous focus she closes with the lines "It's just in dreams we fly/in my dreams we fly." You may be humming Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" a year or two from now but will it ever haunt you in the night?