TIME WAS, you had to feel a certain dread every time Joni Mitchell came out with a new album - God alone knew what it would hold. She went through this, like, y' know, artistic phase, and the result was a stream of incredibly bad music. Hejira, an album that came in the middle of it all, is the only bearable remnant of those days.
Well, the "artistic" stuff is over with now. The recently released Wild Things Run Fast may not be particularly innovative, and it certainly isn't filled with the obscure nonsense some call creativity. But it's the best thing to come from Joni Mitchell in about 10 years, and it's a real pleasure to listen to - even if there aren't many acoustic guitars and pianos, like in the good old days.
In many ways, Wild Things Run Fast is similar to For the Roses and Court and Spark, the two albums preceding Joni's great leap into the abyss of Music Unpleasant. It's got more of a "pop" sound than her recent music, and she's returned to themes of love and life. (Don't laugh - it isn't sappy. We're not talking Barry Manilow here, we're talking Joni Mitchell.)
Of course, there are plenty of differences between 10 years ago and now. For one thing, the voice that sang "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" is older now, and sounds it. No matter. It's still a more versatile instrument than many artists could hope to possess.
If she sounds a little like Pat Benatar at the beginning of the title cut, that's just part of the fun. It only lasts a few bars, and throughout the rest of the album, you know no one but Joni could sing like that. So what if there's a lot of fuzztones; Joni's in there somewhere.
A more important similarity - and difference - is the return to plain old emotions, exposed through delving, warm, thorough, personal, reaching, holding lyrics.
Unlike earlier, instead of spending most of her time lamenting lost love in mournful tunes of minor chords or melancholy words, Joni's got a downright cheerful outlook. Before this, she had - at best - eight songs that could be considered even barely approaching happy.
"Moon at the Window" seems almost a reminiscence of those feelings. "Sometimes the light/Can be so hard to find/At least the moon at the window - /The thieves left that behind."
But the moon at the window sheds enough light for the rest of the album, which sometimes surpasses even "Help Me" in its schoolgirl flights. "Yes I do - I love you!" she shouts, and proceeds to swear it by everything from the stars above to the truck at the stoplight. She says she's got a solid love ("hot dog, darlin' "). And if she keeps this up, she's going to have a solid following for the first time in a long time.
Joni has returned to pop music. But anyone who says that pop music isn't art when Joni does it has a lot of explaining ahead. The album isn't particularly innovative - it's an expansion of what she does best, a Music Pleasant that few other people really know how to do.
Wild Things Run Fast is art. It tells things in a concrete kind of way, a way that at once exposes common feelings yet gives them a unique expression.
Joni's voice may not be what it was. She's growing old, this woman who wrote in "Woodstock" that life is for learning. She's even incorporated an old Righteous Brothers tune into one of her songs, "Chinese Cafe." "Caught in the middle/Carol, we're middle class/We're middle aged/We were wild in the old days/Birth of rock 'n' roll days...Nothing lasts for long." And it's one of the best songs she's even written - from Song to a Seagull on.
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