A MIDDLE-AGED rock musician does not usually make for a pretty sight. Watching some burnt-out, 43-year-old father of five children (two or three of them legitimate) sing lyrics that should emit only from the mouth of an 18-year-old is a painful embarrassment, for the singer as well as the listener.
Still, there are exceptions. A handful of pop composers have managed to age with a semblance of grace and write mature, heartfelt songs about passing into the middle years, the ups and downs of personal relationships being the favored theme.
Among these artists have been Paul Simon, John Lennon, Pete Townshend, John Prine and Joni Mitchell, whose latest album, "Wild Things Run Fast" (Geffen GHS 2019), examines loves glories and miseries.
Early in her career, Mitchell received a lot of flack for being a young woman in the public eye who was less than discreet about her love affairs. And then the Canadian singer-songwriter-guitarist tread even further on formerly male-dominated turf by using her romances as grist for her musical mill.
A decade or so later, the mores of society have loosened somewhat. But Joni Mitchell's scrutiny of male-female relations continues.
Though reportedly in a state of married bliss nowadays, Mitchell brings a good share of pain to this album. She starts with "Chinese Café (Unchained Melody)," wherein she describes being "Caught in the middle... We're middle class, we're middle-aged." The old wild times of youth are replaced by thoughts of mortality: "Nothing lasts for long." She is shocked to realize that she and her female contemporaries "look like our mothers did."
The next three songs sustain this melancholy note. Men come and go, breaking the narrator's heart and leaving her sad and alone in the title track, "Ladies Man" and "Moon at the Window." She bounces back on the side's closing number, "Solid Love," with its appropriately bouncy reggae beat.
Side two runs an emotional gamut, from the level-headedness that comes from experience ("Be Cool" and "Love") to the unhappinesss that comes from too much experience ("You Dream Flat Tires" and "Man to Man") to the elation of being in love ("You're So Square, I Don't Care" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and "Underneath the Streetlight").
Mitchell ends the roller coaster ride with a positive sentiment. In "Love," she updates the famous Biblical passage from Corinthians II (the one everybody and his brother use at weddings), closing the album by singing, "Of faith, hope and love ... love's the greatest beauty."
The LP's lyrical matter, as previously mentioned, is no grand departure for Mitchell. Musically, though, "Wild Things" is a switch from her late 1970s experiments with jazz. Here, she harks back to the accessible jazz-pop sound of her 1973 album, "Court and Spark," adding some New Wave-ish rock to a few tracks.
Mitchell's best album to date, "Court and Spark" possessed a certain energy that "Wild Things," however competent a production, lacks. This seems a disappointment until you consider that Mitchell herself, about 30 at the time of the '73 record, had a lot more "spark" than she has at the age of 40.
Her new work, of course, must reflect that. And while it isn't as risky or exuberant as her earlier efforts, Joni Mitchell's music now has a wisdom that was missing before, wisdom that only experience can bring.
Such music may not thrill the younger members of the record-buying public, but Mitchell's peers will understand and be grateful.
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Added to Library on December 21, 2020. (2664)
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