As enamored fans of any new artist, we tend to love hard and conditionally. We're warmly aware of our commitment, but so often less aware of how contingent it is upon our champions staying put in their sensibilities--don't ever change, baby. But they do change. Especially when, like Joni Mitchell, they're that endearingly capricious to begin with.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter marked the last straw for many fans who already felt forsaken by a couple of previous albums that dared reach beyond the initial folk/pop identity they'd fallen for. But when an album accumulates this much polarized criticism, something big must be lurking within all the confusion and disappointment.
"Pretentious crap!" they said. "A stunning evolution!" they said. Which was it? Part of the answer might lie in the impressions of special cases like me, who somehow managed to hear Don Juan first, free from the hypnosis of Mitchell's early-career siren song. All I can say is that it is, indeed, possible to go nuts for her on the basis of this album alone.
The charm she exerts here is tremendous, even if it's cloaked in a few disguises that put off 1977 skeptics of the "new" Joni, i.e., Joni the jazz-head ("Cotton Avenue"), the expansive strings-arranger ("Paprika Plains") and the Latin sound experimentalist ("The Tenth World"). Her employment of jazz bassist extraordinaire Jaco Pastorius elicited more than a few wounded smirks, but it's all good; the same core qualities are present and in such force that it seems she couldn't have lost them if she wanted to. Mitchell's popularity always owed itself to gutsy envelope-pushing. The unconventional melodies, meters and guitar tunings were there all along (Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore cites her as a huge influence). Don Juan's last track, "The Silky Veils of Ardor," is a lilting and spectacular reminder of those core qualities, including the sweetest one of all--her gift for free and angular language: "I would have locked up my heart/ In a golden sheath of armor/ And kept its crazy beating/ Under strictest secrecy/ High security."
If that eclectic bit of lovelorn Arthurian hepcat paranoia still doesn't do it for the ficklest of fans, there's always the album's title track, wherein a scorned woman observes, "You put me at the top of your danger list just for being so much like you are."