1977 has been a bumper year for me as far as W.E.A. are concerned. My five top records come from their catalogue - Maria Muldaur's Sweet Harmony, the McGarrigle Sisters' Dancer with Bruised Knees, the Beach Boys Love You, Linda Ronstadt's Simple Dreams and Randy Newman's Little Criminals. And it seems that Joni Mitchell's new double album is going to be added to the list.
Together with Newman's Little Criminals, Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is the premier songwriter's album of the year. Yet Newman and Mitchell are strikingly different in their songwriting approaches. Newman writes short and epigrammatic songs whereas Mitchell favours expansive and rhapsodical tales - the prototype of which is probably "The Last Time I Saw Richard" from her Blue album.
Newman likes to achieve some distance between himself and his song, whereas Mitchell's songs seem almost embarrassingly personal at times. "Talk to Me" from the new album is a case in point with the songwriter searching for "My Mystery" and pissing tequila anacondas in parking lots.
"Dreamland", the liveliest and most accessible track from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, sees Mitchell relating her lifestyle to her Canadian origins, and "Jericho" which gets its first airing on Miles of Aisles, is a poetic development of the conceit that is at the core of Capra's It Happened One Night.
In a concert recording out of the late sixties, the lady prefaced her "Fiddle and the Drum" with a long rap on the problems of being a Canadian in America. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter seems to indicate that Joni Mitchell is coming to terms with America. The last song on the album, "The Silky Veils of Ardour" is a strange one with many phrases lifted from the American folk-song book - "Come all you fair and tender school girls", "I am a poor wayfaring stranger", "The water is wide", and etc. This parallels "Old Man on the Farm" from the Little Criminals album where Newman concludes:
Sorry if I stayed too long
So long it's been good to know you
I love the way I sing that song.
In the song, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter", the American problem is crystallized as a snake-eagle duality which works as both the expression of the Indian-European relationship and the songwriter's island schizophrenia. At the very core of the album is "Paprika Plains", a fifteen minute epic which fills one side of the album.
In "Paprika Plains" Joni Mitchell portrays the European rape of the Indian culture with such artistry and emotional power that one asks oneself, "Whatever happened to Buffy Sainte-Marie?" The song culminates in the image of a child's beachball which is transformed into a dance hall glitter ball, an image that recalls James Ivory's Savages of a few years back.
"Paprika Plains" gains a lot of its power from Mike Gibbs' string arrangements, but the album has an assortment of musicians from track to track. Chaka Khan, Airto, Wayne Shorter with a brilliant soprano sax solo at the end of "Jericho", John Guerin, Michel Colombier (remember Wings?) J.D. Souther and Glenn Frey.
It is ridiculous in a way writing a review of such a complex album as this after only a week of listening. But I can't see how your record collection can even hope to attain to respectability without a copy of it, right next to Randy Newman's Little Criminals.
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