Joni Mitchell is one of my favourite musicians of all time, an artist who helped evolve popular music into an artform, inventing a new language. She did this both musically with an expansive range of her own guitar tunings and lyrically, painting pictures with words. Mitchell is able to evoke feelings that most of us are unable to express in words, submerging us into emotive stories. Her songs lead us to dig deeper into our own psyches in a way that is poetic, unexpected and profound.
I have been making my way through her discography, almost chronologically, and you can hear the progression of her artistry – the melodies becoming more complex, exploratory, her guitar-playing evoking different colours through 57 different open tunings. I have had various obsessions with most of her albums through to the end of the seventies (I will soon embark upon her work from the 1980’s onward) and my initial favourites were albums from her folk years.
Clouds belied her age and bore an old soul with ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’ and ‘Both Sides Now’ – a song that should have been written by an older person looking back over their life of which Mitchell has said she prefers the version she performed in her 50’s. However, Mitchell had endured some tough life experiences by the time she had written this masterpiece. As a young girl, she contracted polio and spent a lot of time alone in hospital – an enforced solitude that allowed her to create a rich interior life. She had also been married, divorced and had given up her daughter for adoption as she had no idea how she would be able to both work and care for a young baby on her own. It seems she had already lived a lifetime.
In my late teens my favourite album of Mitchell’s was Ladies of the Canyon that includes favourites ‘The Circle Game’, a bittersweet reflection of time being out of our hands, slipping away with the seasons and her big hit ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ decrying environmental degradation. The record also features her poignant performance of ‘Woodstock’ a song she penned but was made famous through a jauntier version by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Mitchell never made it to the legendary festival and instead, through a series of mishaps, ended up watching it on television. The song’s lyrics embodied the voice of her generation and her performance has an almost dirge-like quality that signals the end of sixties idealism. She said she would have never been able to write it had she actually been able to perform at the festival as instead she would have been backstage witnessing the great egos of artists and show biz impressarios rather than seeing the concert through the eyes and ears of the audience.
Blue seemed to question the values of this generation (free love is only free for a man she would later quip), and she dug deep, revealing more of her own personal life than ever before. There were reflections on past loves including Leonard Cohen (‘A Case of You’), her first husband Chuck (‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’) and Graham Nash with whom she lived but ultimately turned down his marriage proposal (‘My Old Man’). And for the first time, she sings about the daughter she put up for adoption on ‘Little Green’.
The album was her biggest seller to date, only topped by her next record Court & Spark – the album that saw Mitchell abandon the notion of performing acoustic and solo and instead saw her ‘go electric’ featuring an actual band of jazz musicians and friends like David Crosby, Graham Nash, The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Jose Feliciano, members of LA Express and The Crusaders and even a cameo from comedy duo Cheech & Chong. The record stands as her most successful album ever, reaching number one in her native Canada, two in The States and spotlights her biggest hit single ‘Help Me’ and the wonderful ‘Free Man in Paris’ about her good friend and agent David Geffen.
And here lies the turning point. At the height of her success, Mitchell defiantly took a creative U-turn into more experimental territory with an album that clearly states, ‘I’m not going to do what you think I will do, nor what you may want me to do, as I have chosen the path of an artist rather than a commercial hit machine’. Rarely does popular music witness one of its biggest artists turn their back on the machine and chose artistry over financial success and popularity, but with The Hissing of Summer Lawns that is exactly what Mitchell did, shocking some of her less adventurous fans and critics. In her own words: “I got interested in moving away from the hit department, to the art department.”
She once said that music was like her life – she didn’t want to stay in one key or one modality, so rather than repeat the formula that won her awards for Court & Spark, Mitchell used it as a launch pad to continue her musical evolution. Her seventh studio album was her most challenging to date with its intricate melodies and harmonies woven together to sonically portray her narratives, weaving around the rhythm of her lyrics. She took exhilarating musical leaps and she had the band that allowed her to do it.
While old friends Graham Nash, David Crosby and James Taylor helped out with some backing vocals, it was the instrumentalists who helped push her music forward. In her own words, she “cut the players more slack, went more towards jazz, began to use the colours of their background more.”
Once again she recruited members of L.A. Express including drummer John Guerin, bassist Max Bennett and also keyboardist Joe Sample and guitarist Larry Carlton also from The Crusaders whose Wilton Felder also appears on a couple of songs. There is a large cast of musicians appearing on different songs helping give each track its own sound. She forays into freeform jazz territory but it’s not quite jazz – it’s Joni Mitchell music.
Nowhere does she take a more experimental approach than on ‘The Jungle Line’, a song that features one of the first samples on a commercial record. Its a field recording of Africa’s Drummers of Burundi that underpins a solo Mitchell on Moog and acoustic guitar and it sounds futuristic – like something Bjork would do two decades later. The song pays homage post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau and paints Mitchell’s own impressionistic picture of city life, drug use and the music industry. Her stance is critical and questioning – a gaze cast not only on urban living, but even more so on American suburban life on the rest of the album.
With The Hissing of Summer Lawns nobody could any longer call her a ‘confessional songwriter’ (try to find any reference to ‘I’ in this album’s lyrics). Instead, much of the album is devoted to the ennui and the superficiality of upper middle-class America, especially the trophy wives. These were the baby-boomer women who were moulded and bound by the ideals of 1950’s nuclear family, indoctrinated by beauty and manners rather than creativity and intellect. These women were encouraged to marry and have children rather than a vocation of their own and many were strangers to their own innermost feelings and dreams. Many of the characters in The Hissing of Summer Lawns have succumbed to the boredom and claustrophobia of suburban living and a nagging sense of unfulfillment.
The album’s opener, ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’ casts the Gallic nation as a beacon of excitement and liberty – a place a young girl dreams of visiting (the song reminds me of the dreams and disappointments of Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Ballad of Lucy Jordan’). Mitchell sings, “Under neon signs/A girl was in bloom/And a woman was fading/In a suburban room’. The teenage years of Rock N Roll is almost like their early battle carry only to have “been broken in churches and schools/And molded to middle-class circumstances.”
Edith of ‘Edith and the Kingpin’ falls under the spell of The Kingpin, a two-timing married ‘big man’ whom she meets at the disco, competing against other expectant women to call him her own and becoming one of the ‘women he has taken, who grow old too soon’. Even though it may seem she has more freedom than the wife left at home, her choices are still limited and small in vision.
The women in ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’ are more like Joni- ‘I’m leaving on the 1:15, you’re darn right, since I was seventeen, I had no one over me’ – these are the women who eventually stand up against patriarchic values, much like Mitchell did when she left her husband Chuck, a man who went back on his promise to help her raise her daughter by another man and who didn’t want to let her break away from their musical performing duo. She felt she had to break out on her own, as many women were beginning to do in that era.
‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ portrays a modern version of the high maintenance Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ and the title track, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ opens the second side and is about a woman who chooses to stay in a marriage where as a trophy wife, she is treated as an object in her husband’s portfolio.
In ‘Harry’s House – Centerpiece’, the protagonist looks at his wife and conjures up the young, bikini-clad version of her – a girl full of life and vivacity who now breathes the dead air of a claustrophobic suburban life sequestered away. The businessmen receive the same critical stare: ‘A helicopter lands on the Pan Am Roof like a dragonfly on a tomb. And businessmen in button downs press into conference rooms, battalions of paper-minded males taking commodities and sales, while at home their paper wives and their paper kids, paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid’.
The song has two motifs, sliding into the jazz standard ‘Centerpiece’ by Harry Sweets Edison and Jon Hendricks – the gaiety reflecting the couple’s early courtship. Mitchell’s vocal ability within this more standard sound of jazz made some fans long for her to do a traditional jazz album, but Mitchell’s take on jazz would never be bound by limitations.
When the album came out in 1975, many of her fans and critics didn’t get it – they couldn’t detect running theme nor understand the social commentary. And they certainly could understand why she would move away from the musical styles that had bode her so well, that had catapulted her into international stardom. The album was often ridiculed and slated as pretentious.
But once again Mitchell marched to her own drum and looking back we can say she was ahead of her time as for many this became one of her best albums. Prince says it was the last album that he loved all the way through, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns is an obvious inspiration to the works of other female artistic iconoclasts like Kate Bush, Bjork, PJ Harvey and Julia Holter. It’s my favourite Joni Mitchell album, at least for the moment, as there is much more to discover.
– Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy
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