When I began exploring Joni Mitchell's rich catalog early in my career as a critic, a colleague and fellow music critic gave me a rundown of her essential albums. "Blue" and "Court and Spark" were sure bets, he said.
Then he paused and rolled his eyes.
"'The Hissing of Summer Lawns,' not a good one," he said. "Probably her most pretentious record."
Because the CD was so cheap, I picked it up along with other Joni titles. Despite my respected colleague's reservations, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," Joni's explorative 1975 album, is my favorite of hers. Lyrically abstract and musically intricate, it's certainly one of her most challenging efforts. The record requires more attention than most pop fans are willing to spare, especially these days, but it's worth the time. Like any thoughtfully crafted piece of art, something fresh reveals itself upon each return.
I've spun the album countless times, in digital form and on vinyl, and each listen feels like the first. The graceful, breezy "In France They Kiss on Main Street" always brings a smile. The combination of a lumbering Moog bass line and charging Burundi warrior drums on "The Jungle Line" is as odd and disparate as anything Timbaland concocted for Missy Elliott. But somehow it works. Other adventurous touches stand out: the processed guitar line screeching through "Edith and the Kingpin" and the bizarre vocal harmonies darting in and out of "Shadows and Light."
Lyrically, Joni is perhaps her most poetic on "Hissing." One of my all-time favorite Joni verses comes from "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow": "Truth goes up in vapors/The steeples lean/Winds of change patriarchs/Snug in your bible belt dreams/God goes up the chimney /Like childhood Santa Claus/The good slaves love the Good Book/A rebel loves a cause ..."
With its swaying groove, the title track is a sublime fusion of jazz and art-pop. Joni explores an unhappy marriage. The woman is a prisoner in her lavish home, where there's "a room full of Chippendale that nobody sits in." I assume the "hissing summer lawns" are all the neighbors who envy the woman. She's lonely in the marriage and stays with "a love of some kind." Joni poignantly flips an old cliche: "All that glitters ain't gold."
"The Hissing of Summer Lawns" used jazz as the fuel for colorful adventures in pop and rock. Two years later, Steely Dan added more gloss to the formula on the 1977 masterpiece, "Aja." About a decade later, Paul Simon struck Grammy gold extending the multicultural pop-rock amalgamation Joni showcased on "The Jungle Line."
It's hard to imagine the careers of Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, PJ Harvey and many others without Joni, particularly her daring work on "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," a marvelous record ahead of its time.
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