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listening to joni: #7: the hissing of summer lawns Print-ready version

by Laura Kaminker
We Move To Canada
December 25, 2018

Joni's seventh studio album (her ninth album overall) is both a continuation and a departure. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is rich and multi-layered, somewhat enigmatic, full of interesting images and sounds that are open to interpretation. When I'm in a certain mood, this becomes my favourite of all Joni's albums, surpassing even Court and Spark in my imagination, flooring me with its beauty and complexity.

Musically, on this album Joni continues to bring more jazz arrangements to her songs. But she also begins something new: the music is used very sparingly, sometimes only for rhythm, while the melody is carried by only one instrument, Joni's voice.

This is most pronounced in some of the album's most memorable numbers: "Edith and the Kingpin," "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," "Shades of Scarlett Conquering," and "The Boho Dance". Listen to each of those songs and try to find the melody from the instruments: you can't. The instruments provide a rhythmic backdrop, harmonies, or counterpoints. The melody is almost entirely vocal.

I didn't notice this until I began to listen more to Hejira, the album that follows Hissing, where this idea takes full flight. Listening to these albums in order of release, time and again I've heard a musical expression in one album, then an expansion of that idea in the next. This project has been wonderful for that.

The vocals themselves are as rich and pure as anything Joni has sung to this point, her voice at its greatest warmth and range. She uses her "vocal acting" sparingly and precisely. In "Scarlett," there is "cinematic lovers sway" and "she likes to have things her way..."; in "The BoHo Dance, "....Jesus was a beggar" and "Don't you get sensitive on me"; in "Edith," "the wires in the walls are humming". If you can't hear those in your mind as you read them, go and have a listen.

Lyrically, although some of the themes of these songs are familiar, their forms and structures are very different. Joni goes seemingly to a new place, leaving the first-person for the third, from so-called confessional (a label she always rejected) to story songs, very nearly like traditional ballads.

Of 10 songs on this album, seven are stories, and another two can be read that way. Court and Spark has story-songs -- "Raised on Robbery," "Trouble Child," for example -- but the album as a whole retains a first-person feel. The stories on Hissing are like little movies. There is the couple in the title track, she nesting and lonely, he overworked and alienated. There is the gossiping women in "Edith," and Edith herself, with her dubious prize. The woman in "Sorrow," proud and angry but also resigned. The couple from "Harry's House" might be the same people from "Hissing," a little farther into their lives. In "The Boho Dance," Joni hands us the movie script: "A camera pans the cocktail hour / Behind a blind of potted palms".

Many images from these lyrics are indelible for me. "A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof / Like a dragonfly on a tomb" and

His eyes hold Edith
His left hand holds his right
What does that hand desire
That he grips it so tight
There are many unhappy people in these stories, especially many women whose lives have taken bad turns or who have made bad choices, valued the wrong things. But the lyrics aren't biting or cutting, the songs don't condemn them. The woman whose moods and choices echo Gone with the Wind is cold and imperious, but she's also fragile and lonely. In the suburban world of "Harry's House" or the small-town glamour of "Edith," characters are searching, yearning, struggling, lonely. Joni views them with compassion.

On The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni's recurring theme of the conflict between art and commerce finds its greatest and most nuanced expression: "The Boho Dance". Here Joni sings to and about another musician. Whether this person is based on a real friend or is a composite of people she's known doesn't matter. This other musician has chosen the purist route, the life of small smokey rooms, creating music without fame or wealth, or even public recognition. The narrator, Joni's lyrical stand-in, sees the purity as a kind of conformity, a choice -- a dance.

And you were in the parking lot
Subterranean by your own design
The virtue of your style inscribed
On your contempt for mine
In this song, though, Joni doesn't condemn the dance, or dismiss it, or even envy it. She sees it for what it is, "an old romance," and knows it was not for her: "It's just that some steps outside the Boho dance / Have a fascination for me." The woman who wrote "he played real good for free" has seen much more of the music-making world now. She knows herself and accepts her choices.

The final two songs on the album depart from the stories. Joni uses a wider lens here, and becomes philosophical. "Sweet Bird" and "Shadows and Light" are both very different than the rest of the album, and unusual for Joni. "Sweet Bird" is the Sweet Bird of Youth, the title of a Tennessee Williams' play and movie.1, 2 The woman who wrote "it won't be long now, until you drag your feet to slow those circles down" now understands the brevity of those youthful circles in a more profound way.

Sweet bird you are
Briefer than a falling star
All these vain promises on beauty jars
Somewhere with your wings on time
You must be laughing
In this song, Joni declares our grasp of the mysteries of life "guesses at most". The older I get, the more meaningful this is to me. The more we know, the greater the wealth of our experiences, the more we see how little we know, and realize that in so many ways, we are blind and uncomprehending.

Then the album segues into "Shadows and Light," an unusual Joni tune, one that sums up her vision of the world -- one of contrast and duality. Art and commerce, love and freedom, joy and sorrow. She brings us the interconnectedness and commonality of humanity -- and perhaps an idea that our way of seeing and classifying the world is as imperfect and unknowing as we are. Maybe this is why I don't understand the harsh criticism of Joni: because I see the world this way, too.

Bad critic comment of the album

Hissing was received with skepticism and general disdain. There were some positive reviews, but most were dismissive. Many critics cited the lack of conventional melodies and "the problem" of setting poetry to music.

Hissing marks the end of most critics understanding Joni's music, at least for many years to come. Court and Spark was triumphal, and now it was time to start taking her down. (Aimee Mann: "...in a town where winning isn't sweet / And every win is the beginning of defeat".) I don't think Joni ever intended to be opaque or incomprehensible, but the boundaries of popular musical were too small and confining. Critics looking for popular tropes, by definition, will be disappointed.

Writing in The New York Times, Henry Edwards found Hissing "nebulous and pretentious". After referencing a few of the Hissing characters, he claims: "Mitchell has refused to amplify these feminist perceptions with melody, and so they exist as nothing more or less than cocktail jazz-rock." Edwards found the album "eventually becomes numbing."

John Rockwell, one of the godfathers of rock criticism, declares the photo on the inside cover "narcissistic," the lyrics "saccharine," the music "brittle, rhythmically displaced". He dismisses the whole lot as "the same humorless self-absorption that has always marked Miss Mitchell's work". This is a real head-scratcher to me, since almost the entire album is about other people. I wonder, are all photographs of artists on album covers narcissistic?

Rockwell also includes this backhanded praise:

That said, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is a fascinating piece of work.3 The poetic interconnections, the musical idioms, the way Miss Mitchell expands her past styles (African drums, more synthesizer than ever) - all fuse into something unique in pop music. This really is the "total work" she tells us it is, and if that means she shows her warts, her warts are slicker, more glamorous and more interesting than almost anybody else's.
The album cover

Joni has drawn a pen-and-ink landscape, the world of the songs contained therein. In the foreground, the jungle line, and perhaps the boho dancers, make their way across a lush green. Two spots of pool-blue show us Harry's house, and the world where the lawns are hissing. Or maybe Joni's house, as inside, she is shown in her pool. The album cover is evocative and enigmatic, like the album.

Cacti or stockings?

This one leaves no doubt. We've got both the ripped stockings and the lace/stockings with the jeans.

But even on the scuffle
The cleaner's press was in my jeans
And any eye for detail
Caught a little lace along the seams
. . . .
A camera pans the cocktail hour
Behind a blind of potted palms
And finds a lady in a Paris dress
With runs in her nylons
Other musicians on this album

Many musicians played on this album, chiefly:
Electric piano, Joe Sample
Electric guitar, Larry Carlton
Bass, Wilton Felder
Bass, Max Benett
Drums, John Guerin
Horns, Chuck Findley
Keyboards and percussion, Victor Feldman

And also:
Electric guitar, Jeff Baxter
Horns and woodwinds, Bud Shank
Vocals, James Taylor (also guitar)
Vocals, Graham Nash, David Crosby
...and the warrior drums of Burundi

The rich vocals on "Shadows and Light" are all Joni and a Farfisa synthesizer.

Joni herself tells us:

This record is a total work conceived graphically, musically, lyrically and accidentally - as a whole. The performances were guided by the given compositional structures and the audibly inspired beauty of every player. The whole unfolded like a mystery. It is not my intention to unravel that mystery for anyone, but rather to offer some additional clues:

"Centerpiece" is a Johnny Mandel-Jon Hendricks tune. John Guerin and I collaborated on "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns." "The Boho Dance" is a Tom Wolfe-ism from the book, "The Painted Word." The poem, "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" was born around 4 a.m. in a New York loft. Larry Poons seeded it and Bobby Neuwirth was midwife here, but the child filtered thru Genesis at Jackson Lake, Saskatchewan, is rebellious and mystical and insists that its conception was immaculate.

This is first time Joni has included notes of this kind on an album.

Note: I enjoyed writing this more comprehensive review. I'm thinking of going back to my posts on Blue and Court and Spark and fleshing them out a little more.

1. I don't know if Joni is referencing the title of the play or if both titles share a common origin.

2. "Shades of Scarlett Conquering" is often said to evoke Blanche DuBois, of Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. I've wondered if there's a connection.

3. Early "that said" sighting!

This article has been viewed 381 times since being added on June 3, 2019.

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