Ten years ago it would have made sense to write off Joni Mitchell as a gifted pop artist who had succumbed to her worst instincts. Even after a revisionism that deemed "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" prescient (without it, would there be a solo Sting?) and "Hejira" an audacious goof (without it, would Rickie Lee Jones have known how to wear the beret?), there was still "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" and "Mingus", works so insular they didn't need what few listeners they attracted. Mitchell spent the latter half of the 70's denying her greatest talent - the creation of quirky, original, and memorable folk-pop melodies. She concentrated ________ on lengthening and fragmenting ________, forcing them to submit to the _______ of improvisation. We - and she - called it jazz, but when you consider Mitchell's other artistic passion, painting, it makes more sense to interpret 1975-79 as the Abstract Expressionist phase (and no jokes about it, sigh, her "Blue" period.
At the start of her new album "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm" (Geffen), Mitchell's voice wafts up through an ether of synthesizers to deliver the opening lines - "I'm going to take you to my secret place". And all of a sudden you want to yell, "Yeah, take me Joni, take me!" because this voice is familiar - it's the voice from "Blue", the voice from, "For the Roses", the voice that occasionally broke through on her last album, 1985's "Dog Eat Dog". "My Secret Place" is nothing less than an upto-the-minute variation of the confessional mode that made Mitchell the most admired '70's singer-songwriter, and part of the thrill is that she knows it' power. That's why she leads of the album with this song - to tease us with it's allusions to her most cherished music. Ostensibly the flirty words the narrator is singing to a new lover. "My Secret Place" is an irresistable invitation and a commercial come-on, for after years spent crying in the wilderness Mitchell is now making a heroic effort to become a popular artist again.
Over the course of "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm", her effort really pays off; she forces the decade of experimentation and abstraction to work for her. To use a painterly comparison again, these songs occupy the same position as Frank Stella's reent recapitulations do in his, for like Stella, Mitchell set out to master certain techniques, and having done so, can now use them unselfconsciously. For Mitchell, the challenge was digital technology, which she has assimilated over the past few years of collaborations with bassist/producer/husband Larry Klein.
By now, Mitchell's mastery is so thorough that she programs keyboard and drum sequencers as naturally as she strums her acoustic guitar. In turn this accomplishment has freed her to start concentrating on the melodies and the sound of her own voice again. The sexy nonchalance of her phrasing on "My Secret Place" is only the first in a series of witty performances. With similar confidence, she heats up "Cool Water", the 50 year-old cowboy song she says she learned from listening to Roy Rogers. Mitchell sings it with Willie Nelson, moistening Willie's dry croon with multiple tracks of harmonies with herself.
Mitchell has scored "Chalk Mark" like a loose-goose pop opera; Nelson is just one of a slew of guest stars with speaking parts. These include Billy Idol (employed for his campy sneer to impersonate a bullying boyfriend in "Dancing Clown"). Peter Gabriel (used as the object of affection in "My Secret Place"), and Don Henley (used to remind you of "The Boys of Summer when you hear "Snakes and Ladders", the first single from "Chalk Mark", on the radio). While many of the melodies on "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm" can stand comparison to her strongest work. I'd say that the lyrics are slightly inferior to those on the underrated "Dog Eat Dog". On that one, she daubed at verbal abstraction to match musics - there's no song on "Chalk Mark" as daringly oblique as "The Three Great Stimulants" or "Fiction".
My guess is that her honorable attempt to make peace with a mass audience got all jumbled up with her well-documented feeling that the country is turning stupid, hostile and amoral. The result was that she decided that everything had to be SPELLED OUT. Thus, on "Chalk Mark", the bald condemnations of competition ("Number One"), the subjugation of the American Indian ("Lakota"), war ("The Tea-leaf Prophecy" and "The Beat of Black Wings"), and mindless consumerism ("The Recurring Dream"). Most of the time, however, the music overpowers the didacticism - "Number One" in particular, is gorgeous contemporary songcraft, the layers of Mitchell's multitracked voice chanting "Be a winner!" folded in with Klein's bass and synthesizers to create a dreamy, creepy atmosphere. Here is the sound of a win-win-win as it must seem to someone undergoing an especially welcome nervous breakdown.
And don't think from the description that Mitchell sounds depressed or coyly neurotic over the course of the album; in fact, she hasn't sounded this sure of her own powers since "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio". True, she bats her eyelashes at morbidity: "The Beat of Black Wings" is a too, too Sylvia Plath-y metaphor, and the title of the album refers to a verse that natters on about the transitory quality of existence, how we are all just chalk marks in a rainstorm being washed off lfe's sidewalk.
Such malarkey is kept to a minimum. We - and she - used to speak of Joni-as-poet, but these days one of the joys of her work is that she isn't in the least concerned about her place in that particular pop pantheon. She started out in the late '70's marching her iambs down the edge of a verse, but during much of "Chalk Mark" she does without rhyme, meter or very many metaphors, and she deploys images that take their strength from artfully reworked cliches. It's a measure of her born again subtlety that Mitchell identifies with the Billy Idol character in "Dancing Clown", describing him as "stuck in the romantic tradition". She sounds all the more gleeful in her contempt because she knows that with this album, that's a fate she has escaped herself.