IN one song in Joni Mitchell's new album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, certainly the most radical record she has ever released, there's a line that describes "a lady in a Paris dress with runs in her nylons."
Is this the singer describing herself? She plays such a peek-a-boo game here, peering out briefly through the luxuriant growth of her imagery, then running away frightened, back into the tangles beyond. One can never be sure if this is the real Joni Mitchell, or only a part she wants us to see, or whether there's such a person.
It's not that she's playing a game - at least not the way Lennon and McCartney used to do by providing answers for questions not yet asked. If anything, if there is a game, she's part of it. She's looking for herself, too.
And the operative word here is "looking." This is one of the most visually oriented albums ever recorded by a musician (the singer's design of her own cover art has the same subtle care for nuance as photographer Arthur Elgort's work for Vogue).
The most disturbing song in the album, The Jungle Line, mentions "Rousseau," meaning, one supposes, the French primitive painter Henri Rousseau. And certainly Rousseau's magic jungles and gleaming animal eyes are perfectly mirrored by Mitchell's music, with a counter-melody from a synthesizer almost groaning through the rhythmic backing supplied by the warrior drums of a Burundi tribe.
Yet the artist's visual orientation is much deeper than this. In the album's opening song, In France They Kiss On Main Street, she notices "kisses like bright flags hung on holidays." Edith And The Kingpin is an incident told almost entirely in visual terms. And in the title song suburban despair comes with night, when "tube's gone, darkness, darkness, no color, no contrast."
Even the strongest song on the album is one that refers to yet another visually oriented magazine, Better Homes And Gardens, to tie together her own piece, Harry's House, with the Johnny Mandel-Jon Hendricks tune Centrepiece. In this "a paper-minded' male travels and is free while his wife is stuck at home, the centrepiece of his all-too-perfect house.
This is the only song that seems to have nothing directly to do with her life. Everywhere else she seems to be spying on this life. And the more she sees, the more it seems to frighten her.
This sense of unease runs through everything. On her Blue album you felt her restlessness, her need for travel. But here she's at home looking, from her window, at the "blue pools in the squinting sun." And she feels a strange breeze at her cheek and, at this distance, hears strange rhythms.
The album, with its Vogue-like tone to everything, begins gaily in France where "we were rolling, rolling, rock 'n' rolling." It ends in the disturbing calm with the beautiful suntanned Hollywood people "in reservation dining rooms."
This is a major album, and an unsettling one, too.
The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell. Asylum 7ES-1051.
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