We've reached a milestone: a Joni Mitchell album I don't like.
No, that's a cop out. It's not merely that I don't like Dog Eat Dog. It's that Dog Eat Dog is not good. It's a really bad album.
All musicians, all artists, create clunkers sometimes -- especially if they're experimenting and expanding. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, David Byrne -- musical giants all, and all have released albums that aren't very good.
And although it pains me to write this, Joni is not the exception.
I stopped reading David Yaffe's biography of Joni while I was writing this blog series, so I don't know the history behind Dog Eat Dog. (I will go back and finish the book.) I don't know if Joni was pressured to try a more commercial sound, or if she genuinely wanted this album to sound and feel the way it does, or if perhaps the final result didn't reflect her intentions. The overall effect is that of a failed project, of an artist trying to be something they're not.
On Dog Eat Dog, Joni takes a break from writing about personal truths -- love, trust, betrayal, loneliness, being true to oneself, struggling with relationships -- to write about the larger world. Most of the lyrics are topical and political. But although Joni has written politically-themed lyrics in the past, an album's worth of that material didn't work.
The lyrics come off as prosaic, obvious, and preachy. Joni comments on the religious right, consumer culture and materialism, famine caused by misuse of resources, even the spectre of nuclear holocaust. But none of it works. There's no poetry, no flow.
The songs that aren't topical are even worse. "Good Friends" is a duet with Michael McDonald, known principally as the voice of the reconstituted Doobie Brothers. In the era of Dog Eat Dog, McDonald's voice was a mainstay of commercial radio, so at the time this song seemed like a blatant play for commercial viability, and a failed one. Now it's just awful. Even McDonald's backing vocals are a jarring thumbprint obscuring everything else in the mix.
Why would Joni want to dilute her most beautiful and versatile instrument by linking it to a one-note hack? (McDonald supplied some prominent backing vocals for Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins. Enough said.)
The only passable song on the album is the final track, "Lucky Girl," a jazz ballad. But it's not worth the effort to get there.
Saxophone great Wayne Shorter plays on this album, but his masterful sound has been produced down to a dull, anonymous wash.
I honestly can't find anything good to say about this album. The lyrics are thin, hackneyed, and obvious. The arrangements are thin and dull. The production is straight out of '80s Central -- synth, drum samples, barely the sound of real instruments. (Thomas Dolby, Joni? Really?)
Bad critic comment of the album
This pains me... but I agree with it. Rob Tannenbaum, writing in Rolling Stone:
It's not surprising that Joni can't unravel world politics in a couplet the way she could a romance, but it is disappointing that after a three-year silence, her social criticisms are merely the sort of bloodless liberal homilies you would expect from Rush.
Here's a bright spot: I do like the album cover! Apparently the cover was supposed to be a large painting Joni had done: "Dog Eat Dog," for instance, had a large canvas, 10-foot-by-5, all dogs, God dog, Jesus dog, you know, and racial dogs in conflict and so on. I sold that painting in Tokyo. Geffen told me that, "Okay, Joan, we know you're an artist, but stick your picture on the cover." So I did a kind of a collage being attacked by wild dogs, you know, and that was fun to do. So there were really two album covers for that. But he wanted my kisser on the cover, so I had to give it to him (laughs). The patron, the great patron, spoke.
To me, the dogs look like wolves, and Joni appears, not being attacked, but raising her arms and closing her eyes in a kind of ecstasy, perhaps singing and dancing. There's more interesting information about this cover here on the Joni Mitchell website.
Other musicians on this album
Basses, Keyboards, Fairlight CMI and Synthesizer Programming - Larry Klein
Keyboards, Fairlight CMI and Synthesizer Programming - Thomas Dolby
Guitars - Mike Landau
Drums and Drum Samples - Vinnie Colaiuta
Percussion Samples - Michael Fisher
Trumpet, Flugelhorn - Jerry Hey, Gary Grant
Saxophone, Flute - Larry Williams
Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone - Wayne Shorter
Bata - Alex Acuna
Vocals - Michael McDonald, James Taylor, Joe Smith, Thomas Dolby, Don Henley
Something I learned
It's much easier to write bad reviews than good ones. When art works, it's incredibly challenging to articulate why and how it works. Ultimately whatever is written about great art will fail to capture its power and beauty. But cataloging the many ways that art doesn't work is way too easy.
I'm sorry that critics have had so much fun at Joni's expense. I didn't enjoy writing this at all.
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Added to Library on February 13, 2021. (245)
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