Joe Rosenberg and I once interviewed the redoubtable Captain Beefheart, and, amid the pleasantries, asked the good Captain what he thought of the Great Midwest. "Chlorophyll," he responded. It took us a second to understand him - seeing America through the tinted windows of the tour bus made it all look green. Much of Joni Mitchell's imagery is equally plain after a second of thought, and she deserves your time if you accept the conceit of literate rock music; nobody does it better, as Carly Simon recently mentioned somewhere.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is both flawed and brilliant - Mitchell's best album in years contains enough lapses to sink the work of a lesser artist, enough musical genius to redeem the lapses. It is a difficult, unapproachable double set that demands attention, causes the head to shake in condescending boredom, lulls and kills. I do not recommend it to the casual listener, but then I do not plan it [sic] file it away for a time, either.
Joni's killer instinct is rather subtly introduced: the album's first tune praises a neck of the woods where the fun never stops, and "Cotton Avenue" seems to be the place to go for a rousing weekend night. After a bit it's apparent that the narrator's never been down there, that the whole damn song's rodomontade. This isn't in the lyrics at all - the realization seeps through Mitchell's superb actor's voice; she sings it bluesy and wispy at the same time. Joni's "Cotton Avenue" isn't too far removed from Van Morrison's Cyprus, though hers ends in isolation and his in madness. Take your pick.
"Talk to Me" includes one rather vulgar line I found superfluous on first listening and magnificently apropos upon the second - in fact, its inclusion in the song well nigh makes the record for me; such correctness of expression is staggering. "Talk to Me" also ushers back upon the stage the old shat-upon Joni Mitchell, who makes her vulnerability an almost aggressive trait. Underneath the tune is a scream, a cat-claw yowl of sex and terror and tension.
Much of Don Juan's ... is superfluous: "Otis and Marlena" escapes cruelty only by plunging into unfair polemics, and the title song is too manic and personal to fathom. "The Tenth World," instrumental and banal, merely links the Florida vacation of "Otis and Marlena" to the Caribbean horrors of "Dreamland," a superb and ominous song that Roger McGuinn covered two years ago in completely different style. The sidelong "Paprika Plains" evokes Mitchell's Canada too long and too uninterestingly (though the bass of Jaco Pastorius rings as it does throughout the album - it's the dominating sound over all four sides and it is fine).
But just as the record's about to be accused of indulgence come "Off Night Back Street" and "The Silky Veils of Ardor," and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter ends with wrenching, aching bitterness. Joni Mitchell differs from her fellow Canadian Neil Young in style - she explores folk and jazz while he concerns himself with country and rock - but both are driven to explore the dilemma of man and woman versus the survival of self. "Silly Love Songs" or "Heaven on the Seventh Floor" doesn't cover it - neither does Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, but it covers enough. This is the big league, kids, and Joni's a starter.
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