A year before her 40th birthday, the great romantic of rock music undoes her locket once more. Three years have passed since "Mingus" and the world has moved fitfully on: but in Mitchell's universe the identical concerns have to be invoked and picked over, obsessively, again and again. I've partnered in this waltz so many times I'd like this to be a valedictory look - except "Wild Things Run Fast" seems such a melancholy dance, so lacking in what Mitchell can be so good at, that I'll have to leave with a heavy heart, not a cleansed one.
I could sum it all up immediately as an extraordinary record from someone who has pursued the extraordinary and frequently come near it. It could, of course, simply be a low point in a continuing body of work, but Mitchell's records are not supposed to be commonplace artifacts of the rock game; and they haven't been, from "Court and Spark" to "Mingus." "Wild Things Run Fast" seems such a palpable retreat from the vantage point she'd grafted towards for so long that its appearance is a severe anti-climax in a progression that should have dispensed with highs and lows. There seems nothing of consequence to remark on.
The most immediately disappointing element is its sound. I seem to recall a declaration of a final estrangement from the rock system around the time of "Mingus," a decision to plant a flag on jazz's dark moon - but this is a record of rock music, pure and distressingly simple.
There is the patented weightless feel with which Mitchell and her master recordist Henry Lewy always leaven her banks of strings and rhythm, and Wayne Shorter pipes a few sublime soprano borders on three songs. But that is a rich woman's indulgence. There are oafish guitars, big swarthy backing singers, rock'n'roll drums. Her inclusion of a snobbish remake of "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" sounds embarrassing, a reach back into the gauche innocence of her first music which her own writing can no longer accommodate.
There are familiar pleasures, perhaps too familiar: the urbane gesture, a certain dizziness, a frequent gossamer delicacy. Her voice is unimpaired - it was never a jazz voice anyway, more that of a volatile chanteuse prone to the ruling of the unbidden heart. Sensuality was not Mitchell's strongest suit. She would rather dance among the daffodils than lay down in them. And there were always her diaries to look through, over and over.
Time catches up with everybody, and the central weakness of "Wild Things Run Fast" is that it isn't in time with anything. Where once Mitchell's confessional sincerity seemed as permissive as this strain of genteel, literate sophistication was going to get, rock has abandoned its timorous fidelity for good an all. Rickie Lee Jones has already accomplished all that Mitchell reached after, and beside a record as suggestive and rich in resonance as "Pirates," "Wild Things Run Fast" begins to look very callow and grey indeed. Linda Ronstadt's "Easy For You To Say" is as affecting a breakdown of the amorous burden as anything here.
For all her investigations of the heart's inner sanctum, Mitchell has progressed little from her first muddled gush of romance if this writing is a true barometer. In maybe half the songs here she seems to want to return to that era: at least, there is a surrender of her sharpest faculties in "Solid Love," "Ladies Man," "Man To Man," and "Underneath The Streetlight" that seems an absurd waste. If she chooses to shut out the observatory eye that brought about brilliances like "Edith And The Kingpin" and "Otis And Marlena" then she does down her greatest skills.
Because she does not have the gift of writing great dumb pop music. That's the only thing that would carry a trifle like "Wild Things Run Fast" itself. There is a persistent suggestion that she's slumming in the cheapest throes of dime-novel romance, and it's ludicrous that the progenitor of the scorched skyline of the "Hejira" set should want to settle for something so facile. This is a simplification, not a paring away.
Inevitably, there are some things to salvage: throwaway words, a brief tingle on the line. The beginning, "Chinese Cafe" is a portrait of regret between friends that touches a little more deeply; and the close, which she has chosen to call "Love," might as well be the last song she writes. "Even if I understood all the mysteries - if I didn't have love I'd be nothing." She refers to II Corinthians: 13, which is Paul's farewell to that people; but I looked at I Corinthians: 11 - "Judge in yourselves - it is comely that a woman pray to God uncovered?" Indeed.
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