The high priestess of Woodstock, the resident honey of the California folkie scene, is searching for new directions. With The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell goes beyond her usual immensely successful format of personal confession songs. She follows the musical direction suggested by "Jericho" and "Love or Money" off her live album, Miles of Aisles - more jazz-oriented than folk, striving for complexity rather than simplicity. Ms. Mitchell is to be admired for her experienting [sic] with innovations in her music - unfortunately, they rarely work on this album.
Lyrically, the album offers some fine pop poetry. "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," is engulfed with mystery, weaving Christian and pagan symbols together to make a statement about male-female relationships. The last verse works especially well:
Milk of the Madonna
He don't let up the sorrow
He lies and he cheats
It takes a heart like Mary these days
When your man gets weak"
"The Jungle Line" has a seething lyric concerning sexual and racial enslavement. The song blasts out evil images of dope dealing, slave boats, big city squalor, and exotic jungle settings. And with a brilliant irony, Ms. Mitchell users Henri Rousseau's starkly innocent jungle paintings to unite the themes.
The title song offers a familiar story of a barren life in suburbia, harking back to a much earlier song from Ladies of the Canyon - "The Arrangement." The suburban husband and wife are materially tied to one another in an existence that offers little spiritual or emotional satisfaction - "He gave her a room full of Chippendale / that nobody sits in."
Musically, the album is almost a total failure compared to her previous work. Actual tunes are non-existent. Without Tom Scott's direction, the four members of the L.A. Express offer very little in the way of inspired accompaniment. Whereas Ms. Mitchell's music used to soar to amazing heights with the unmatched combination of her lyrics, melodies, and voice, she has now sunk to a new low.
"The Jungle Line" pales in the face of its thematic counterpart from For The Roses - "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire." The cutesy gimmick of using real jungle drums and synthesizer shows an unusual lack of taste. "Shadow and Light", the album's pseudo-gospel song, suffers from too many vocal overdubs, overdubs, overdubs - not to mention a synthesizer that squirts into the song occasionally.
"In France They Kiss on Main Street" reads like an excursion into 50's nostalgia and sounds annoyingly insincere - particularly its refrain - "rolling, rolling, rock n rolling..."
Production, musicians, and a lack of melodies are the main problems of Hissing of Summer Lawns. If Joni Mitchell continues her excursions into jazz, hopefully, she will improve on these weaknesses or she will be in danger of losing her status as one of the finest talents on the music scene today.
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