New York - A synthesizer plumbs a low note from the depths of consciousness and lets it linger, as a piano hauntingly picks out the melodic skeleton of "Unchained Melody" - a romantic ballad that was one of the top hits of the mid-1950s.
Then an entirely new melody breaks in, with a voice singing about how "we're middle class, we're middle - aged" and proceeding to recall the days when "we'd be dreaming on our dimes, we'd be playing."
The voice is Joni Mitchell, as is the song, "Chinese Café" - which she intertwines with "Unchained Melody". It is the opening song on Mitchell's new album, Wild Things Run Fast (Geffen Records), the most fully realized album she has done in a decade.
"Chinese Cafe" is a perfect preface, a song that sets up the themes - often dialectical - that weave and war through the album, as well as illuminating Mitchell's central paradox: pragmatic realism juxtaposed against romantic idealism.
The song is addressed to a childhood friend and is very specifically set in the town where Mitchell grew up in western Canada. The tone is mundane, almost gossipy - "We look like our mothers did now, when we were those kids' age" - but the words return, as if compelled to the repetition of one line: "Nothing lasts for long."
Counter to this refrain runs the haunting "Unchained Melody", with its words about how love and separation prolong time: "And time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much; are you still mine?"
The song is followed (Mitchell has meticulously, logically programmed the sequence of this album) by the title cut, a rocker about a woman (the narrator) who tries and fails to hang onto a lover. The song also echoes the old rock classic, "Wild Thing".
The pursuit of men turns from rural to urban with the next cut, "Ladies Man" - a woman's plea to a man who may be afraid of real love, despite being a Lothario. The side concludes with two contrasting songs, "Moon at the Window" and "Solid Love". The first is a moody rumination on how "people don't know how to love." The second - and Side One's conclusion - is an upbeat celebration of a love that conquers all the odds of a soulless urban landscape. Like "Moon at the Window", "Be Cool" proves that Mitchell learned a lot from her problematical "Mingus" album and her association with Charles Mingus and other jazz musicians. She approaches jazz contexts here with Steely Dan confidence, and Wayne Shorter's soprano sax brushes lines as delicate as Japanese landscapes behind her voice.
"Be Cool" is the pragmatic realist telling us not to display our emotions - but the lyric is sabotaged by a telling ambiguity, the admonition to "Play it cool, 50-50 fire and ice" might suffice as an explanation.
As if to throw us into further conundrums, Mitchell follows with a 1950s rock 'n' roll song that expresses an opposite viewpoint - that of a lover who doesn't care if her amour is less than stylish: "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care".
Exceptionally original metaphors enhance "You Dream Flat Tires", an accusatory love song challenging a lover to abandon himself completely. He, in a brilliant stroke sung by arch-romanticist Lionel Richie, expresses reservations.
"Man to Man" confirms those reservations in a confessional song wherein the woman admits to being fickle about lovers.
The album ends with a song that affirms love with a language that eschews romance, and a philosophical reflection on the same subject.
Dist. By the Field News Service
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