"In My Dweams We Fwy" (sic), says Joni Mitchell on the inside of her new album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum BB-701). All right. "Oh, people, stay!", sings Jackson Browne, in a rousing finale to his first live album, Running On Empty (Asylum 6E-113). While Jackson pleads with us to stay, Joni seems to be trying to chase us away. What gives?
Despite the fact that both Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell work for the same record company (thus the dual release), it's kind of interesting to see two such personal performers evolve together. While both these performers are proven successes, no one was quite ready for the turns they take.
This Joni Mitchell album is an aural contradiction. Like her previous album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (Asylum 7E-1051), the music demands concentration while defying any sort of personal involvement. Obsessed with geographical locations and elementary filmic imagery, her songs have evolved from the bright fresh symbolism of "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Woodstock" to sad, oblique, almost stream-of-consciousness works such as "Otis and Marlena", "Overture - Cotton Avenue", and the clever, fully evolved "Talk To Me".
This two-record set is an epic of some sort, but it's hard to say just how lasting a work like this is. A slightly demented friend calls Joni Mitchell the "Ian Anderson of Folk Rock", and from all indications, Mitchell is in the process of making the same sort of jump here that Jethro Tull made from Aqualung to Thick As A Brick.
There's no argument that evolution is important to any artist, and rock and roll is no different. But, especially in rock and roll, governed as it is by economic consideration, an artist must be careful to drop a hint or two along the way as to the nature of that change. Those who don't run the very real risk of alienating their audience. The success of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (after six weeks on Billboard's Top LP's and Tapes, it's comfortably stalled at #25) indicates that Joni isn't as reckless as a lot of us thought. But you can't help wondering...if the analogy to Tull has any legitimacy, Thick As A Brick was only the tip of Anderson's iceberg of madness.
Despite needing a machete to hack through the undergrowth of her lyrics, the album features Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report on Bass, providing one of the more unique musical matchups in recent memory. It turns out that Pastorius has provided Mitchell with just the sort of whimsical foundation she needs, and many of these pieces have no musical focal point other than Pastorius.
Jackson Browne, on the other hand, has recorded what may be a definitive collection of songs under many categories, not least among them live albums, "theme" material, and even crowd noises.
You can't help but notice the recent glut of live albums; everyone is hoping to cash in on the phenomenal success of Peter Frampton. Despite their "live" titles, the vast majority of these records are stiff and stilted, offering little spontenaity [sic] and fewer jams.
What Browne has done is take the theme of the artist under pressure and apply it to the rigors of touring. What he has produced is a masterpiece of collaborative effort, unique not only for its solidarity, but for the unmistakable stamp of Browne himself as well.
The only performer in recent memory to utilize "mood" lighting for a publicity still, Browne uses the crowd, bus noises, and even the tour photographer in his songs, and the pervading atmosphere is one of enjoyment. We can understand the pressures and the hassles, but Browne is careful to emphasize the humanity of his situation as well. A transcription of the lyrics to all the songs on this album would stand as a biographical outline of not only this particular tour, but of Browne's approach to performing, too. We follow him through motel rooms, rehearsal halls, to buses, and finally onto the stage, where we become assimilated into the world of the travelling [sic] artist as no pretentious, over-packaged two-record set can do. There is a creativity here that cannot be denied.
In a firm, yet relaxed manner, what we needed - and what we've gotten once again - is Jackson Browne putting it all in perspective.
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