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Band Jury: Madeline Kenney Defends Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog Print-ready version

“People just really ascribe a certain ‘siren of the hippies’ role to her, whereas this album feels like a sad, middle-aged woman in a business suit. She can contain multitudes”

by Ryan Reed
Spin
October 25, 2023

Madeline Kenney (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images) / Joni Mitchell's 'Dog Eat Dog' Cover (Geffen Records)

Welcome to Band Jury, a SPIN series in which artists defend black sheep albums they feel deserve another listen. These are projects that, for whatever reason (middling sales, negative reviews, a misunderstood stylistic shift) have fallen slightly out of fashion - or perhaps never reached it to begin with.

The Defender: Madeline Kenney

Qualifications: Indie-rock singer-songwriter with four albums of artful, experimental songs, including her latest, July's A New Reality Mind; human who enjoys music

The Defended: Joni Mitchell's 1985 LP, Dog Eat Dog

Overview: Mixed-to-negative critical reception; peaked at No. 68 on the Billboard 200, her lowest ranking in 17 years; spawned two singles, "Good Friends" (No. 85 on the Hot 100, No. 28 on the Mainstream Rock chart) and "Shiny Toys"; career-worst score (2.71/5.0) on fan-review site RateYourMusic

Like many other self-described "Joni-heads," Madeline Kenney's journey into Joni Mitchell didn't begin with Dog Eat Dog, the most divisive album in the songwriter's vast catalog.

"I got super into [1974's] Court and Spark and knew every word and chord change," she says. "My mom was so glad when I was getting into it. She was like [does an impression in a dramatic, almost Victorian accent], 'Oh, my god. I had that album when it came out, and I listened to it so much that the needle wore through.' It was a cute bonding moment."

Cute - and also logical: Court and Spark is the kind of canonical record you might find on a "best-of" list, embodying Mitchell's sonic hallmarks (the folk, the jazz, the soft-rock) from her most universally acclaimed era, the early '70s. But that beloved project didn't define her full creative arc: Mitchell continued to shape-shift over the years, morphing into jazz-fusion, mainstream pop-rock, and the experimental, difficult-to-define synth-pop of Dog Eat Dog. That LP, infamously co-produced by Thomas Dolby ("She Blinded Me With Science"), was a relative flop in every sense: only reaching No. 68 on the Billboard 200, earning some harsh reviews (Rolling Stone called it an "unpleasant listen," and in a 2020 ranking of her LPs, Paste placed it dead last, arguing that it "didn't age well.")

But perhaps the album's aesthetics - the usage of synths and samples, the '80s drum sounds, the (relative) lack of signature guitar playing - are what drove so many people away. Maybe the dismissal of Dog Eat Dog is more about what fans expected from a revered artist, rather than a perceived artistic failing.

"I think if this record was made by another artist who was more known for those angular soundscapes, people would be like, 'Oh, what a great record!'" Kenney argues. "But because it's coming from someone who people have such defined expectations from, they're like, 'Ew.' Laurie Anderson could have made that record, and people would have been like, 'Yes, that makes sense!'"

Do you remember when you first heard Dog Eat Dog?

I remember getting into this record because I was on tour. I was playing in my friend's band, and the drummer, Paul, set the song "Dog Eat Dog" as his alarm. It's really funny because that song starts off with no instrumental - it just goes straight into [sings] "Dog eat dog!" Waking up to that every morning on tour was very funny to me. It was also funny if I got up before them and watched it go off.

I just feel like this record has everything you're used to loving about Joni: interesting chords, cool phrasing, her phonetics - like consonants. It's very satisfying - there are a lot of hard "r" and "k" sounds. It makes the lyricism a lot more compelling, and I obviously think [the lyrics are] enthralling too.

So why do you think so many people hate it?

The hatred of it is so weird to me. I have so many feelings about this. It shows how close-minded some people are. [It comes back to] something I've always said about artists trying to [evolve] and their fans being like, "I hate this": [sarcastically] You know when you become friends with somebody and stay friends with them, and then 10 years after you've been friends, you go, "Actually, five years ago was my favorite time of you - can you just go back to that?" It's such a ridiculous thing. Everybody's entitled to an opinion, but expecting an artist not to grow and change and be interested in other things is super naive and unfair to them as a person.

I really love that record. She goes back to doing guitar-based stuff [later in her career], but she doesn't play guitar on [Dog Eat Dog]. She just plays synths, and she was being super experimental with her own use of samples. It was a brand new tool for her. Of course it's different from her other work. But it's cool to hear somebody who already has incredible songwriting and storytelling capability use a different tool.

A lot of artists have those big breakout albums that fans can rally around. But Joni Mitchell was always pretty unorthodox with, like you said, alternate guitar tunings and unusual phrasings. And she twisted and turned stylistically throughout her career. Maybe fans were turned off by the slicker, '80s-sounding production. Do you have a theory?

There are parts of it that are abrasive, I would say, compared to her other work. I love reverb-y, boomy, '80s drums. I love that shit. I think it's so satisfying. There's a lot of Thomas Dolby doing things in the background, so maybe people are... I don't know. It's a little more bold. I don't think it's more genius than her other records, but the soundscape is more angular. This record has a lot of tones that remind me of the Pretenders or Tune-Yards or something. [Laughs.] People are like, "Oh, I want her to croon and sing those really high butterfly notes."

Exactly.

Joni Mitchell has said before that she considers herself a painter first and a songwriter second, which is really interesting because everybody's decided what she is to music. But if you [consider] her own mindset, this is just another medium that she's trying on for size. Working with those synthesizers was just another way for her to express her humanity. She was such a huge part of that late '60s/early '70s movement in music: being political or whatever. People just really ascribe a certain "siren of the hippies" role to her, whereas this album feels like a sad, middle-aged woman in a business suit. She can contain multitudes - that's a thing.

This album came out one month after Kate Bush's Hounds of Love. There are a lot of sonic similarities, including the use of the Fairlight synthesizer. I feel like they are sister albums.

Wow, that's wild! Not to reduce it all to feminism, but I think it's just fucking cool that they were getting in the studio with all these bros and being like, "I just want to try this." I guess it was kind of contentious between Joni and Thomas Dolby, who then later was like, "Ooh, I think I was being kind of a dick." Any movement a woman makes outside of her assigned role can annoy people, can ruffle feathers.

It seems like there's a lot of weight placed on artists who come out of the gate so strong and have this very particular vibe that people resonate with. It's hard for people to detach themselves from that and let them do their thing.

It would be also naive to expect that every album of hers would be like that. I don't think this is her best album, but I think it's important for artists to experiment and grow - and have growing pains. You're gonna hear their growth through their catalog. That's just their nature. We still frame Rembrandt's sketches.

I know that Dog Eat Dog specifically influenced your new album. How so?

Those echo-y, wet drum sounds - and just being really synth-based too. It wasn't on purpose. It wasn't like, "I'm gonna do this too!" But she didn't play guitar on the album, and I only play guitar on one song on this album. I typically play guitar on every song, but I sort of wanted to escape that and just do piano and synth. There's been a lot of returning to Joni Mitchell surrounding this album. I finished the album and sent it to my close friend Jenn Wasner [Wye Oak, Bon Iver] - we used to live together. A day later, she's like, "Dude, this is totally your Dog Eat Dog moment." Maybe those people who wrote those bad reviews would take that as an insult, but I was like, "Oh, my god. Thank you!"

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Added to Library on October 29, 2023. (815)

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