Joni Mitchell's new album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, is unusual in many ways, but the fact that it is unusual is not, in itself, unusual. Her albums have tended toward the idiosyncratic since her live Miles of Aisles summed up and thereby capped off her career as popular-acces- sable-singer-songwriter. With The Hissing of Summer Laws [sic], then Hejira, and now Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, she has, depending on one's perspective, either weirded out or pretty much bitten the dust as a major talent, or gone on to pursue her interests and develop her talents by creatively experimenting and expanding her style. From both perspectives Joni Mitchell has been unusual; the difference between the two perspectives lies in the connotations they give this word: "unusual" would mean "strange" from the first perspective and "ambitious" from the second. (The reason for the two perspectives is, I feel, a misunderstanding on the part of those with the first perspective. Many of those who reject Joni Mitchell's newer material judge it in terms of her older, very good and very accessible style, and because of this they are unable to appreciate the newer stuff on its own level.)
This is an ambitious album. Ms. Mitchell takes a lot of risks, sticks her neck out quite a bit. Even before listening to it, you (as an average record buyer) might observe from the notes that she sings one song accompanied only by percussion instruments, sings another song backed only by an acoustic guitar (somewhat of a return to her "folk" days) includes an "Overture" (what is that?), fills one whole side with one song (something that is unheard of from a major song writer-singer since Bob Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the LowLands" eleven years ago), and even includes a seven minute percussion instrumental. Also, if you were familiar with the group, you might notice that all but one of the members of Weather Report play on the album, not surprising considering Joni's similar use of the L.A. Express a few years ago, except that what she uses here are not horn players but percussionists and a bass player, Jaco Pastorius. Finally, you would notice that it is a double album, indicating a physical as well as stylistic expansion of her music. (You might wonder about the justification behind expansion, however, because at 60 minutes this album is only about ten minutes longer than her last, yet almost twice as expensive.) Having observed all of this, regardless of whatever else you might say, you would not say she wasn't ambitious.
When the record finally does reach the turntable, the average record buyer-turned listener will find it a very fine album. The "Overture," a strangely pretty interplay between guitar, bass, and vocal parts, pulls the listener in almost hypnotically. At the same time it is an excellent lead-in to "Cotton Avenue, the most catchy and upbeat song on the album. This is a funny yet sympathetic song about night life in a small town, and it is the first of many references to younger days. The next song, "Talk to Me," is on a more serious note. It is an earnest sometimes desperate appeal to a gentleman for conversation. ("Are you really exclusive or just miserly? You spend every sentence as it were marked currency! Come and spend some on me.") Ms. Mitchell's voice and guitar are accompanied only by Jaco Pastorius' bass, and this arrangement is very effective in highlighting the intensity of her plea. The side ends with "Jericho," a song about dealing with a disintegrated romance. The song appeared for the first time on Miles of Aisles in a snappier, happier version, but this version is more appropriate to the message being conveyed.
Side two is "Paprika Plains," a sixteen minute song dealing with Joni Mitchell's childhood, Indians, and dreams, all three of which are themes that recur throughout the album. It begins with the basic song (lyrics set to the melody), then moves into an interlude with piano and strings dominating - nice but perhaps a bit long - then returns to the basic song for its conclusion, and finally ends with a string instrumental, "Into the Sunset" fadeout which might conceivably have been found on a Weather Report album except for Ms. Mitchell's distinctive piano. The song is one of Joni Mitchell's biggest gambles on the album, and though the piece is not flawless, it works. Since it is a gamble, something new and out of the ordinary, it is that much more satisfying when it does work. This is the high point of the album. Side three, in contrast, is a bit disappointing. It opens with "Otis and Marlena," a scathingly sarcastic song about old people who go to Florida for the comfortable, artificial existence the area offers them. ("They've come for fun and sun/while Muslims stick up Washington..." ) Such treatment seems unnecessary; any ridicule of old people seems cruel. An attack on the privilege of wealth might be justifiable, but this is not what she strikes at in this song. Following this is "The Tenth World," a seven-minute percussion instrumental, featuring eight different types of percussion instruments, and including various unintelligible chants thrown in from time to time. I don't know what Ms. Mitchell's intentions were in including this when she made her album, but they certainly did not match my expectations of enjoying it when I bought it. It seems to have no reason for existence but them [sic] again, what, or who, does. The last song on the side is "Dreamland," the apparent conclusion to "The Tenth World" in that the percussion instruments dominate, though they use a bit more restraint here. In "Dreamland" they serve as accompaniment for Joni Mitchell's sing-songy, almost childlike vocal, which deals again with dreams. The contrast of her innocent-sounding voice with the primal drumbeats offers a contrast which might strike many as being too eclectic, too unharmonious, but I find it interesting. The lack of instrumentation is so glaring that I find myself filling in harmonies and other background sounds, and I do not think it is improbable that she intended something like this.
With side four comes a return to normalcy, relatively speaking of course, songs being offered in a more familiar form. This side is the most emotionally revealing of all. It begins with "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," a song describing a short-term affair - the type of which seems most common for her - using American Indian metaphors and terse, Indian stereotype language, occasionally throwing pieces of the American national anthem for effective contrast. She realizes the drawbacks involved in such encounters, but expresses confidence that in the end more good comes from them than bad. She sings about the less glamorous type of short-term affair in the next song, where she describes the pains of being an abused lover, an "Off Night Backstreet" who "he" comes to see only when he wants to cheat on his girlfriend. Both of these songs address a person ("you") directly, and so would seem to be rather immediate reactions to these relationships. She observes her lifestyle in a more reflective light (and in first-person) in the final song, "The Veils of Ardor." In this song, in which she utilizes only voice and guitar, returning to her most basic musical as well as spiritual level, Joni Mitchell expresses regret for her loss of innocence-thereby explaining her pre-occupation with her childhood - and voices a desire for an ideal love, thus clarifying the importance of her dreams, since "It's just in dreams we fly" ("we" meaning she and her lover).
Beyond being impressed by her voice, which has never sounded better, and by her lyrics, which continue in their general level of excellence, and by her general musical talents, which are awesome, one is moved by her honest and authentic emotion to the point where one feels with her. It is the ability to accomplish this last effect that makes Joni Mitchell an outstanding rather than merely proficient artist. It is the accomplishment itself that makes this album such a pleasure to listen to.
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