"The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is the least introspective album Joni Mitchell has ever produced. It is also her most perceptive and sophisticated album yet. It is a complex album with overlapping and interrelated themes that echo the strongest ideas expressed on her earlier songs.
"In France They Kiss on Mainstreet", the album's first cut, is an almost flippant comment on the specious independence of middle class adolescence. The tune is quite reminiscent in theme to the earlier "Let the Wind carry Me":
"Under neon signs/ a girl was in bloom
And a woman was fading in a suburban room"
"Shadows and Light" is as serious a song as "In France They Kiss on Mainstreet [sic]" is light hearted. Done in the style of a hymn, "Shadows and Light" is a direct assault on convention and establishment. Mitchell attacks the conventionality of art, the hypocrisy of important politicians, the emptiness of American freedom, the perverted value system of the upper middle class and, by the song's very nature, the rigidity of religion. "Shadows and Light" is a compilation of Mitchell's most strident commentaries from previous albums.
"Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" deals with a woman caught in a paradox between the desire to be free and the longing to stay and help her weak man. Mitchell's writing style is at its symbolic best here; she writes:
Queen of Queens
Wash my guilt of Eden
Wash and balance me
Uprising in me tonight
She's a vengeful little goddess
With an ancient crown to fight."
This quandary between personal need and compassion is one of Mitchell's favorite themes and was the basis for almost every song on "Court and Spark", but with "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow", there is an added and interesting switch in that the great complicator - the man - is directly mentioned in the song.
"The Jungle Line" is the album's best cut. The song is an almost incredible journey through modern civilization using the images of savagery and destruction to characterize 20th century humanity. Mitchell interlaces references to Henri Rousseau, the French primitive painter whose painting depicted a pleasantly unrealistic jungle life, with shadow scenes of urban drug culture. In Mitchell's interpretation, all of modern society is still a primitive culture:
"Thru huts thru Harlem thru jails and gospel pews
Thru the class of Park and the trash on Vine
Thru Europe and the deep deep heart of Dixie blue
Thru savage progress cuts the jungle line"
Clearly this is Mitchell's most powerful accomplishment since "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" on "For the Roses."
"The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is satisfying lyrically, but musically it is a disappointment. Though surrounded by excellent jazz-pop musicians such as Larry Carlton and Joe Sample, Mitchell can't seem to get her arrangements off the ground. They sag and they even lack the energy and simplicity found on "Court and Spark" and "For the Roses." Mitchell seems to be appeasing her desire to compose jazz at the expense of her highly effective folk style heard on her earlier albums, especially "Blue".
Musically, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is mediocre, but lyrically it is probably the best pop album of 1975.
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