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Joni: a fallible magician Print-ready version

by Michael Watts
Melody Maker
December 24, 1977

JONI MITCHELL: "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" (Asylum BB701. Import). Joni Mitchell (vocals, guitar, piano); Jaco Pastorius (bass and percussion); John Guerin (drums); Don Alias (bongos, congas, clave, snare drum, sandpaper blocks and shaker); Wayne Shorter (soprano sax); Larry Carlton (electric guitar on "Otis And Marlene"); Michael Colombier (piano on "Otis And Marlene"); Manolo Badrena (congas, coffee cans, vocals on "The Tenth World"); Alejandro Acuna (congas, cowbell, shakers, ankle bells); Airto (surdo bass drum); Chaka Khan (vocals on "The Tenth World" and 'Dreamland" ); J. D. Souther and Glenn Frey (vocals on "Off Night Backstreet"); Michael Gibbs (orchestrator and arranger on "Paprika Plains" and "Off Night Backstreet"). Recorded and mixed at A&M Studios in Hollywood by Henry Lewy and Steve Katz.

WHY HAS Joni Mitchell blacked up and dressed like a man on the cover of her new album? What is the significance of printing lyrics on the sleeve that remain unsung on the record? And why are the four sides of this double album not in continuity? Answers, please, Ms. Mitchell, in a long interview at this address.

Once again it's coming on Christmas and Joni Mitchell is making her traditional present of illusions and disillusionment (although the album is not officially released in Britain until the first week in January). The mysteries, too, are as profound as ever. There are enough symbols and metaphors here - in the constant reference to dreams, for example, or snake images - to provide a field day for a Structuralist critic. And, of course, there are the familiar songs of crushed hopes, though Joni seems to be growing tougher and more ironic with age. But "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" (now that has to be irony) is, if not a failure, then certainly not a conspicuous success.

The reason, I feel, concerns the form of her music in recent years. On her previous two albums she patently stopped building songs upon attractive hooks and became more interested in textures and rhythms, to the point where "Hejira," her last record, was recitative in tone.

But the delicate, sombre music of "Hejira," an album about her flight from relationships, quite brilliantly sustained the mood of her lyrics; and on "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" she constructed a remarkably successful bridge between this new sophistication and the more obvious pop song format of her earlier career.

This adoption of a more implied melody has thrust greater emphasis upon her lyrics and the readily apparent view of herself as a poetess, to which she has responded with her most deeply poetical language. But, since she is still working in a musical medium, it has also demanded of her music a great degree of tension and range of careful nuance to ensure that her songs do not become elegant Muzak, best suited to dinner parties.

On "Don Juan" she has fallen from the tightrope, and, although she always climbs back up, her performance is distinctly patchy. Too often here her custom of displaying, as though for textual analysis, her song lyrics seems to be an end in itself. One admires the quality, the figurative landscapes, of her writing, but also requires that a song-sheet be not indispensable.

Highly ambitious, she has devoted a whole side to a long musical poem ("Paprika Plains") that is couched in several movements, ranging from classy pop song to orchestral piece (actually, more like "Dream Of Olwen") and finally to the kind of cool jazz sound that has preoccupied her since she began using the Crusaders on "Court And Spark."

It sounds pleasing - above all, it is sophisticated, like the rest of this album - but, most telling, for the lyrics to the long orchestral section (where she plays piano on Mike Gibbs' arrangement) she obliges us to consult the printed sleeve.

To use this parenthesis is to play games with the listener: it's an irritating artifice, not unlike the equivalent in literary techniques of "discreetly drawing a veil" over the action, except that the heart of the poem is precisely in these lines.

But it could also indicate that she's having difficulties reconciling music and lyric. Having forsaken sheer tunefulness, how does she extend her musical ambitions and continue to refine her sort of poetry, especially as, she's working in a mass medium?

Unlike Steely Dan, her closest rivals as writers of literate rock music, she has no background in jazz to supply her with more musical possibilities; and anyway, she's openly romantic, with a style that retains strong traces of her monologic folk-song roots.

Her singing, for example, though it has completely lost the shrillness that makes "Big Yellow Taxi," say, so hard for me to bear, is not that of a jazz artist, since she can't really swing and she is not the mistress of verbal felicities; rather, it can be cool and jazzy, in imitation of the West Coast jazzmen she obviously likes - and, indeed, her voice has rarely sounded more assured than on "Paprika Plains."

The limitations of her writing are most exposed on the three songs which constitute the first side: "Cotton Avenue," "Talk To Me" and "Jericho." These songs deal with familiar themes. "Cotton Avenue" is about a young girl's enthusiasm for the bright city lights, and, like several other first songs on her albums, it especially celebrates the urge to dance; on "Talk To Me" she is playful, teasing a response from her lover; and "Jericho" shows another Mitchell preoccupation - her need for, but fears of, emotional commitment.

Their lyrics, if far from her best, contain some good lines, particularly the lightly ironic "Talk To Me." But the music, which relies heavily upon her strumming rhythm lines and Jaco Pastorius' sliding, booming bass, falls flat; it is never as interesting as the lyrics, which clearly take precedence.

The musical ideas, which on earlier albums might have been resolved as melodies, are just not there, and the playing does not conjure sufficient atmosphere to compensate for this.

This criticism can be levelled against other tracks. The title song is a dazzling, metaphorical piece which uses images of snakes / trains and eagles / planes to express not just personal inner conflict but the sense of a riven America; and yet the music lacks a corresponding tension, the shaping hand of a dramatist.

"Hejira" worked because of its unified mood, but with "Don Juan" one is forced to look for good bits. True, there are many moments to savour. "Otis And Marlena" is a very barbed song about enervated Florida sun-seekers, whose unreal world she contrasts with the violence of world events; "Paprika Plains" miraculously summons forth a childhood memory of doomed Indians in her homeland of Canada; and "Dreamland," which has Airto's hypnotic bass drum underpinning the rhythm, supports that mood of reverie.

But it's time for Joni Mitchell to take stock of her music. With commendable adventure she has spread herself over four sides of this album, but she has neither moved forward nor consolidated the success of "Hejira" and "Summer Lawns." She is a magician, but a fallible one.

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"Her singing, for example, though it has completely lost the shrillness that makes "Big Yellow Taxi," say, so hard for me to bear, is not that of a jazz artist, since she can't really swing and she is not the mistress of verbal felicities; rather, it can be cool and jazzy, in imitation of the West Coast jazzmen she obviously likes - and, indeed, her voice has rarely sounded more assured than on "Paprika Plains."
So wrapped up in their own importance these critics. His piece is so full of contradictions. He is talking about about a majestic, fearless masterpiece.
"She can't really swing" what a prat!
"She is not not the mistress of verbal felicities" Really!!?
This guy is a lost cause. This is one of my most treasured, most played albums of all time. ( Thanks to the Joni website people for making this site such a worthy tribute to her awesome musical presence ) Love to you all.