On The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (Asylum 7E-1051), Joni Mitchell takes an ambitious and perceptive look at the type of life American society offers to a free-spirited artist like herself. While she does not totally reject or condemn the American Dream, she yearns for something more.
"Conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally - as a whole," this package is the first major collection of new material to be released by Joni in two years. Hissing shows a creative mind working in full gear on a thematic song cycle that is the most challenging effort of her illustrious career.
Superficially, the record is an extension of the electronic, jazz-influenced compositions she initiated on Court and Spark and, most recently, Miles of Aisles. But there are striking differences in the mood and the attitude she is adopting on the new album. She is less the lovesick lady mourning the end of an affair and more the woman of the world observing the changing scene.
In "Shades of Scarlett Conquering," her cinematic, southern belle declares "a woman must have everything," and she means more than just Clark Gable.
Her music too has grown more confident - she's now a first-class composer of sophisticated musical structures, arrangements and sound effects, judging by the album's impressive sonics. It's a considerable achievement as Mitchell is now working without the guidance of Tom Scott who originally helped shape the group sound on her last three albums.
On this release, Joni is trying to establish her place in the ranks of pop music's elite. She's a star but success is turning out to be less than she expected.
The first song, "In France They Kiss On Main Street," celebrates freedom, romance and creation as the human and artistic ideals to which she aspires. But, in "The Boho Dance," she realizes that she's still much the same person as when she was a struggling folk-singer from Canada:
"Nothing is capsulized in me / On either side of town / The streets were never really mine / Not mine these glamour gowns."
The aspect of contemporary living that she really dislikes is the bureaucratic and technological maze. "Harry's House" effectively destroys the myth of suburban bliss by including the classic Johnny Mandel-Jon Hendricks tune of unrequited love, "Centerpiece," within the pessimistic context of her song.
Instrumental support varies from solo guitar to full instrumental backing by members of the L.A. Express. The song "The Jungle Line" pits Joni (on Moog and acoustic guitar) against a rhythmic backdrop of African warrior drums. The combination results in a primitive dance within an electronic backing. Although she is a complex composer, she is also capable of reverting back to her old soloist stance as she does in the closing track, "Shadows and Light."
Joni's poetic artistry is in top form as in her description of a helicopter landing on a building as "a dragonfly on a tomb." Art and graphics must be occupying a significant portion of her time, as in two of the songs, she pays tribute to the painter Rousseau, and art critic-journalist Tom Wolfe. The album's artwork is particularly noteworthy - a group on savages haul away a huge snake in front of a skyline of New York City on the cover while the liner photo features an arresting picture of Joni floating in a swimming pool.
The best feature of her new LP, despite her first-rate music and lyrics, is the incredible vocal range she's developed. Not only does she sings well but she uses her voice to its maximum advantage - recording her own chorus in one track or in repeating a phrase like "birth and death" until it becomes interchangeable in meaning with another phrase.
With The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni is bound to arouse controversy among those of her fans who prefer the beautiful simplicity of her earlier work or even the pop music feel of her last couple albums.
She is, ironically, in Dylan's former position where the musical progress she's making attracts new listeners and alienates old ones. But like Dylan, she has proven that she is talented enough to overcome such criticism by producing excellent compositions that need no justification - only comprehension.
Though it is a complex work that requires the active participation of the listener to discern its mystery, the real value of this artistic statement lies in her adroit way of suiting her lyrics to the musical accompaniment.
One may not agree with the direction she's taking, but with this LP, there should no longer be any doubt that she's breaking new ground and uncovering those buried musical treasures that reside exclusively within her.
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