JONI MITCHELL: mysterious
JONI MITCHELL: THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS (Asylum Records — import 7E-1051). Joni Mitchell: Moog, acoustic guitars, Arp-Farisa, keyboards; Max Bennett: drums; Robben Ford: guitar; Victor Feldman: vibes and electric piano; John Guerin: drums and Moog; Larry Carlton: electric guitars; Wilton Felder: bass; Joe Sample: keyboards; Chuck Findley and Bud Shank: horns and flute; James Taylor: guitar and background vocal; Graham Nash and David Crosby: background vocals.
On the inside sleeve of this album Joni has a short, cryptic liner note stating that the record is "graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally" a total work, but adding that she is not about to unravel its mystery for anyone.
With almost any other artist I'd be tempted to think this kind of riddle-me-ree was crap, but since Joni is a writer of such great sensibilities, with a fierce conscience at that, I feel drawn inescapably into her game.
And yet I confess it is difficult. Always a lyricist of exquisite subtlety, preferring to suggest rather than interpret meanings, she has devised a delightful torture. Unlike the past three studio albums — and particularly the last one, COURT AND SPARK — she is not concerned with the conflict between the private and public artist and that business of "the star-maker machinery behind the popular star." There is no obvious theme, just as there are no longer any obvious melodies but songs and singing that exhibit a great interest in the shifting inflections of jazz which one can surely attribute in part to the influence of her good friend, the drummer John Guerin of the L.A. Express.
I can only hazard the thought that she is making a statement this time about a far less specific but much deeper fascination. As is implied by the album cover (self-drawn, of course), with its depiction of African natives dragging a huge snake across what could be Central Park, with New York skyscrapers in the distance, there is a theme juxtaposing the primitive and sophisticated, an idea borne out by the album title with its evocation of sprinklers on suburban lawns . . . and yet something else. This Pinterish construction would certainly be supported by several tracks. The Jungle Line, which almost certainly has given rise to the African tableau and was assuredly inspired by Henri Rousseau's turn-of-the-century picture, "Virgin Forest At Sunset," has her singing, over a tape of the booming warrior drums of Burundi, about "Rousseau's vines steaming up to Brooklyn Bridge," and develops an analogy between Nature and the feral quality of New York's own jungle. There are other clues. In Harry's House-Centrepiece — the centrepiece of which was written by Johnny Mandel and Jon Hendricks — she describes a businessman checking into his New York hotel suite and drifting off, as he looks out the window, into a fantasy of his wife as he first met her in school; the fantasy, represented by the Mandel-Hendricks tune, is then rudely shattered at the song's end by the voice of a virago telling Harry "just what he could do with Harry's House and Harry's take home pay."
This theme of uneasy urban life is expanded upon in Edith And The Kingpin, with its tale of the seduction of a small-town girl by "the big man," and more sinisterly, in the title-track which, as in Hockney's Californian paintings, contrives to make the fact of "blue pools in the squinting sun" unreal and intriguing. In all these songs she seems to be commenting on "life's illusions" that she wrote about in Both Sides Now — Rousseau, a sophisticated man, yearns for a red-blooded primitivism — and she uses The Boho Dance, a Tom Wolfe term for would-be artists making a virtue out of suffering in garrets to further illustrate her idea of the self-deluding quest for "real" experience by over-civilized people. It's the most overtly autobiographical number on the album, and she reveals her own unromantic position in relation to the theme when she says "the streets were never really mine, not mine these glamour gowns."
Doubtless the exact drift of Ms Mitchell's lyrics will become evident in time, but for now I can only enthuse about the quality of her writing. No other popular artist I can think of writes with such a polished, well-balanced and economical style.
She has clipped away all adjectival excess, and every word is weighted in the line. As indicated before, the nature of her music is now leagues away from the generally straightforward folk songs of the past, and she has forged a form of personal expression that is beyond imitation. This, her most mysterious and ambitious record, breathes with her cool and damaged beauty that lingers long after the last playing. — M. W.