THE FIRST IMPRESSION one gets from listening to Joni Mitchell's latest, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," is that it is a cold, detached album.
For the first time Joni Mitchell seems to be writing in the third person.
Another immediate impression is the jazz influence on the album-- even more predominant than it was on her live album with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express.
The third impression one gets on first listening is that this is not a West Coast album. There are references to France, Africa and most of all New York. The New York City syndrome, in fact, dominates the album.
But while listening to the album, my eyes and my thoughts kept returning to the liner notes: "This record is a total work conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally-- as a whole."
If this is true, then Joni Mitchell has painted a bleak picture of life and love in the man-woman relationship. A life filled with unfulfilled promises of the future by the young lovers who hope that life will always contain the simple pleasures: "We'd all go looking for a party, looking to raise Jesus up from the dead. I'd be kissing in the backseat, thrilling to the Brando-like things he said. And we were rolling, rolling, rock and rolling."
It's also a life filled with imaginary dreams and hopes that can never come true: "A celluloid rider comes to town, cinematic lovers sway, Plantations and sweeping ballroom gowns take her breath away."
In Miss Mitchell's allegory, Edith marries her kingpin who installs her in a fashionable all-electric home where "she could see the valley barbecues" and from her window sill see the "blue pools in the squinting sun and hear the hissing of summer lawns."
She does get to venture from her isolated fortress "looking for some sweet inspiration... just another hard time band with Negro affectations." She also looks for that type of love she always imagined she would receive, but finds the same plastic men. "Don't you get sensitive on me, 'cause I know you're just too proud." She learns that she is trapped within her fate: "Nothing is capsulized in me on either side of town. The streets were never really mine, not mine these glamour gowns." The dreams of the celluloid rider vanish in the hissing of summer lawns.
Joni Mitchell paints her best picture of this life-- a picture of the results of this type of existence for both sexes--in the song "Harry's House-Centerpiece." The woman, of course, is the centerpiece--nothing more in Harry's life--and she is trapped in Harry's house. But life does not offer any more--perhaps even less--for Harry who flies to New York for a business meeting and takes a cab downtown ("Taxi schools of yellow fishes, Jonah in a ticking whale") and sees all the other plasticized women ("Beauty parlor blondes with credit card eyes looking for something chic and fancy to buy.")
About the only fault one can find with this masterpiece of an album is that it may be too difficult to listen to--I mean really listen to. The Joni Mitchell sect will buy it, play it and continue to live their vinyl-covered lives. But if we look into Joni Mitchell's mirror and see the warts and the scars there, maybe there'll be hope--not for the world, but for the ones we love.
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