Joni Mitchell's not a little girl any longer. The days when she'd giggle self-consciously while warbling about paradise and parking lots are as far behind her as the childhood of any adult. Similarly, her artistic adolescence is also behind her; the wistful, breathy vocal tones that were the hallmark of "Blue" and "For The Roses" have mellowed into a smokey, self-confident voice that could only be described as mature. Mitchell is still fascinated with love lost and found, but her perspective on the subject has wholly shifted from naive confusion to an attitude that is somewhat tired and often a bit jaded.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns began the transition. Coming on the Heels of Court and Spark and a live set, her two most commercially accessible efforts, hissing was something of a shock. The smiling, wide-eyed, gosh-l-just-love-you-all Joni her fans had all known had become cool and distant, wrapped in a cloak of petulance and brooding. The trend continued with Hejira. Less musically complex, it still portrayed Mitchell as a rich, slightly faded socialite who'd come to view life with a decided bitter streak. By this time, she had also become the ideal metaphor for the end of the sixties; goodbye to San Francisco and hello to Hollywood. The Summer of Love was over, and its participants were virtually obligated to embrace the values of a society they'd hoped to obliterate.
Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is the culmination of all that is good, and all that is bad, about the "new" Joni Mitchell. And appropriately, its dominant theme is that of looking back to her past. Not looking back longingly, nor with any great nostalgia, it is more analytical than anything else. She's not yearning to go back, nor is she terribly sorry it's over. She merely wants to step aside and have a look at it.
The album's strongest point is its instrumentation. Backed mostly by veteran jazzmen (Jaco Pastorious' bass is essential to the album's sound, and Larry Carlton, Wayne Shorter and Aierto also contribute), the album takes the basic churning guitars, flying bass and subtle percussions of Hejira and makes them less monotonous, more textured. On Hejira, each song was given the same basic rhythms, distinguished by a single, slight touch; Neil Young's harping on "Furry Sings the Blues," or Larry Carlton's ethereal guitar on "A Strange Boy." Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, on the other hand, displays a greater instrumental versatility without sacrificing the essence of the sound. Mitchell's guitar is sparser. Pastorious' bass more complex and unpredictable, highlighting the dreamlike haze through which Mitchell views her past. The album has been lushly produced, and the sound is rich and vibrant, but subtle just the same. The swirling "Cotton Avenue" and the hypnotic percussion-only backing of "Dreamland" are but two of the more musically notable points of the album.
Unfortunately, while Reckless Daughter highlights some of Mitchell's most shining talents, it exposes some of her worst conceits at the same time. One of the most endearing characteristics of her earlier days as a songwriter, an ability to laugh at herself, has all but disappeared. Where once the idea of bad guys in Big Yellow Taxis running around paving paradise was enough to give her the giggles, she now intones lyrics just as pretentious and silly with an unsmiling intensity most people would reserve for the word of God. Mitchell is a skilled poetess to be sure; it was, in fact, her dawning awareness of this on For the Roses that first suggested her change in stylistic direction. But she has come to regard herself so highly as a writer that she now seems convinced that every thought that occurs to her is laden with profundity. "Talk To Me," for example, turns out to be nothing more that [sic] the ramblings of a silly, drunk girl hanging off the arm of a guy probably about to punch her in the teeth to shut her up. Real cute. The idea undoubtedly struck her as terribly funny, but the listener gets the feeling that you had to be there.
So it goes with most of Reckless Daughter. Mitchell always had a talent for giving common thoughts and feelings a unique life with her words, but the ideas behind much of Reckless Daughter are just too ordinary to hold much attention. This self-indulgence occasionally works its way into the instrumentation as well; the seven-minute percussion party, "The Tenth World," must have been gangs of fun for Joni and Co. to do, but the energy level that is reached by the climax of the track is hardly worth waiting for. Surprisingly, the track which would be most likely to prove over-introspective actually works rather well. "Paprika Plains." Mitchell's first attempt at an epic is hampered by its length (over 16 minutes) and by its use of the American Indian as a rather predictable metaphor for the lost innocence of Earlier Times. But with a large portion of the original lyrics left unsung, supplanted by a flowing instrumental bridge that nicely avoids being tedious, the piece winds up being quite effective, and, in fact, one of the most satisfying pieces of the album.
There is a lot to like about Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. It is an entertaining and well thought-out album, beautiful to listen to at least casually. But it is an extremely private album, and leaves its audience particularly those who expect it to be thought-provoking too much on the outside. Joni Mitchell will be in some trouble if she does not remember by her next album that she is still playing for people.
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