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An end to innocence: how Joni Mitchell fails Print-ready version

by Perry Meisel
Village Voice
January 1977

Perry Meisel

Despite Joni Mitchell's reputation as a lyricist, the poetic element in her work has been a growing source of embarrassment to many listeners over the years. Less a measure of ignorance than of optimism, Mitchell's verbal pretensions are a product of her innocence -- an innocence that seems unwarranted by the crushed hopes her songs discern in everything from urban blight and stardom to motherhood and love. Usually, Mitchell's melodies have been so compelling that her songs stand up on purely musical grounds, at least until her last LP, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, which sounded so aimless that it put off many of Joni's oldest fans. It is the poetic/lyrical factor, though, that sustains the new album, Hejira, Mitchell's ninth disc in almost nine years and her best since Court And Spark.

The predominance of the verbal and vocal on Hejira is largely the result of its simple dearth of melody. The singing, lean and true as never before, is almost entirely in the service of Mitchell's verse, which flexes through a wide variety of thematic exercises in language sharper, but also more abstract, than one has come to expect from her. Recitative rather than swinging or rocking, the songs tend to hover low and somber over the flat and sometimes faceless surface of the backup rhythms (most of them without drums), making Mitchell's declamatory voice the disc's sole object of attention.

In fact, Hejira presents the Queen of El Lay more explicitly in the guise of a poet than ever before, festooned with cape, beret, slanted pinky, and the backdrop of a resolutely abstract landscape. Well, that's the way poets are supposed to look, I guess, and Mitchell's (self-)portrait here seems to be a little too aware of that. Mitchell, of course, has always tried to pass herself off as a poet by printing out her lyrics on the covers of her recordings. No mere listening aids, the printouts constitute a tacit commitment to the perils of scrutiny and rereading. Mixing your metaphors in ignorance is one thing, but flaunting your pretensions in black and white is quite another. Unless . . . unless . . . the vaguely ironic Mitchell that emerged after For The Roses is now becoming more overt.

Mitchell's paradoxical history, both personal and artistic, should have prepared us for such a contingency. Here was a lover of words who, by all accounts at least, had spoken for a generation in revolt against language, a prairie girl from Alberta who wailed about the garden she had willfully forsaken for the grit and darkness of adopted cities like Toronto, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. Above all, here was a capricious lover resisting fantasies of domesticity even while the hausfrau within her was rattling around the kitchen in a constant huff about how fickle her own lovers seemed to be. Despite the paradoxes, though, Mitchell managed to forge an ego-ideal for lots of women, and certainly an ideal for the female vocalizer who was also a versifier, not to mention the lousy poet who could sing.

But self-absorption in art, the city, and the emerging self was only half of it. On the other side was another cluster of dreams, all of them allied with the rhythms of nature, childbearing included. Beyond them, however, was the question whether matrimony and domesticity were parts of nature, too, or whether they were simply another expression of the same evil that had erected New York and L.A. in place of the garden. The categories got jumbled -- what was nature and what was repression?

The new album seems to offer a new set of answers to the old questions, beginning with the familiar contrast between the world of "nylons" and the world of "jeans": "You know it was white lace I was chasing/Chasing dreams/Mama's nylons underneath my cowgirl jeans" ("Song For Sharon"). Surprising as it may seem to hear Mitchell opting for the "white lace," self-reliance capitulates to domesticity, the cowgirl to the family. Yes, what is real or natural -- what is "underneath" -- turns out to be an ego-ideal named "Mama."

Yet the rest of the stanza complicates this moment of self-discovery by scrambling the terms on which it is made: " . . . first you get the kisses/And then you get the tears/But the ceremony of the bells and lace/Stills veils this reckless fool here." The "bells and lace," of course, turn out to be just as foolish as the "jeans." Neither is more real or natural than the other. The "veil" of the bride is also the veil of illusion. So the meaning of "underneath," in its Freudian sense of discovery, gets called into question; depth itself becomes a fiction and the self a surface of images, ciphers, or signs. Epiphany is "just a false alarm" ("Amelia"), while "deep and superficial" ("Hejira") come to be one and the same thing.

If Mitchell's language denies the possibility of real discovery, though, what happens to the "nature" that Joni the romantic has always been hellbent on recovering? If there is no ground, how can there be a garden? And if domesticity may be part of humanity's natural rhythms, where is a nature that is separate from society and its attendant constraint's?

At this point Mitchell's mythology begins to crumble. Premised on a return to nature, her mini-allegories fairly reek with a nostalgia for the garden and, by implication, for a pre-fallen language as well. Such a paradisiacal language would identify the word with the thing, allowing Mitchell to speak about feelings with all the sincerity for which she yearns. Trouble is, we're all outside the gates of Eden. Language is not an innocent tool of expression; it leads a life of its own, and, more often than not, it helps to manufacture the world in which we live.

Mitchell, though, resists the power inherent in language as such, even the power her own language displays. Despite the fact that her words generate ambiguity and call their own meaning into question, she wants them to stay fixed and believes that they do. A relentless practitioner of figurative speech, Mitchell behaves as though her words are straightforward conduits of expression, "direct from the heart" as it were. I'm more than willing -- in fact I'm eager -- to grant Mitchell the title of ironist. Unfortunately, she's not willing to grant it herself.

Indeed, she clutches on to reactionary notions about history and anthropology as eagerly as she clutches her own sincerity. Without a belief, however metaphoric, in the garden beyond or before civilization, there could be no belief in the garden of pure feeling that Mitchell assumes to be growing "underneath" ego and superego in the terrain of the self. For the Mitchell of Hejira "history falls/To parking lots and shopping malls" ("Furry Sings The Blues"). Though the trope's manifest meaning is simply that old buildings get torn down by property developers, Mitchell's figurative use of the word "history" also makes a clear (even if unintentional) rhetorical distinction between "history" and "shopping malls" that implies that shopping malls aren't part of human history at all. What's more, this trope is typical of her indulgence in nostalgic fantasies about a simple past she presumes to have existed before technology and industrialization. In this context, the phrase "history falls" turns out to be meaningless: history is a consequence of the fall, not the other way around. In this way the phrase even threatens to invalidate the Christian romance of Mitchell's quest for redemption -- of personal and public histories alike.

The question of literary prototypes also raises the question of Mitchell's relation to real Romanticism. The High Romantics themselves were by no means the pantheists our high schools like to teach, nor were they the source of Mitchell's naive assumptions about the status of nature. Shelley, for example, begins his famous poem in awe of Mont Blanc, and ends by asserting that he has imagined it. Not only is there not way back to the garden that Mitchell's "Woodstock" once demanded -- nature itself may not even exist. There is no state of innocence down "underneath," where she expects it to be.

So there is finally no paradox involved in Mitchell's having spoken for the nonverbalists of the '60s. Hers is a language on the verge of dissolution, though the dissolution is largely unwitting and unrecognized. Unlike Barthelme or Borges, whose language is intentionally designed to empty out its signifying power in a dissolution that is part of its significance, the dissolution of Mitchell's language falls outside her will and control. Her language is therefore clouded, vague, imprecise, immodest; above all, rampant with figures of speech that break down under scrutiny and that collide in implications they do not intend.

God knows, I've had my heart-throbs for Joni, and I've been moved almost to tears by her stuff. But that's when I've been listening to her sing. Joined with melody and the infinite nuance of her voice, Mitchell's words are something else again. As a batch of syllables no longer bound to the responsibilities of the page and its ironic preconditions, they acquire a new and different kind of life. Puns on "ego" and "eagle" ("Coyote"), for example, are entirely legitimate when they're sung, despite their nonexistence on the page. Even the dangers of imitative form are superseded when Mitchell's voice ascends to meet the heights of "ice cream castles in the air" on "Both Sides Now."

Mitchell's language also creates the kind of phonemic density and variation that only singers like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan can impart to the relatively simple verbal mannerisms of most pop tunes as they are written. Because the phonetic density of Mitchell's lyrics is so high (I'd wager she uses more syllables per song than any songwriter living, Dylan included), her songs are, formally speaking, almost like copied-down scat extensions of a simpler melody line embedded somewhere inside the tune as a whole. From this point of view, Mitchell's style of songwriting seems designed to catch up as best it can with its perception of the essence of jazz singing proper. What it more often resembles, however, is the effort of a patchworker or bricoleur in assembling fragments of sources -- blues, folk, opera, music-hall, cabaret, and so on.

Mitchell readily admits to knowing next to nothing about "real" bluesmen, like the pop composer W. C. Handy or the vaudevillian Furry Lewis, whom she pairs up in what is doubtless Hejira's most distressing song, "Furry Sings The Blues." Despite is expressive flexibility Mitchell's voice is about as far removed from anything like real jazz singing (especially Ella's or Vaughan's) as her romanticism is from the Romantics themselves. Joni's voice doesn't get you in the crotch or gut the way real blues heartthrobbers do. Mitchell lacks the element of swing as plainly as she lacks a direct kind of sexiness -- witness her version of Wardell Gray's "Twisted" on Court And Spark or even Hejira's "Blue Motel Room."

If Mitchell's sexuality is hard to flush out into the open, her prairie-bred will is always plainly in evidence. Her instinctive professionalism yokes together all her half-digested musical influences, saving and polishing every scrap and displaying in the process a frugality and neatness that may signify a latent anality in this liberator of the repressed. Granted, when the compulsive Mitchell handles the crossfire from her various musical sources with perfect control, the results are melodies like those on Blue, which inhabit the mind as an unforgettable sweep of notes largely devoid of the lyrics with which they are sung. Without melody, though, Mitchell's singing gets boring and redundant despite its requisite subtleties and nuance as on the droning, recitative "Coyote," Hejira's opener. Is it an accident that, even for Joni's greatest fans, her greatest songs have always been her most tuneful ones?

Bound to the page as they are, however, Mitchell's songs insist on being divided against themselves. There is no more striking example of this than the breathtaking moments on "Refuge Of The Roads," in which the song's recurring melodic channel emerges with sudden splendor in a late chorus. The splendor is due [to] the ambitious words with which this melody is sung: "These are the clouds of Michelangelo/Muscular with gods and sungold/Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads." Yet the lines are impossibly pretentious for a number of reasons, chief among them the vague relation between Michelangelo and the "clouds," and the unfortunately successful identity it implies between Michelangelo's work and Mitchell's own. Both accomplishments, by the way, are signified by the figure of "clouds," which have always been a cipher for all that is significant to Mitchell since "Both Sides Now."

Hejira's title, however, is its most enticing trope. The word "hejira" refers to Mohammed's flight from Mecca in 622, a flight for personal survival that preserved the fledgling Islamic religion. Ever since, "hejira" has come to mean such a purposive flight from danger or oppression. Clearly, Mitchell means to take this meaning for her own, the burdens of stardom, the dirt of the city, in this way, the album's recurrent images of flight -- Icarus, jets, crows, and so on -- conspire to suggest a Mitchell whose only "refuge" is "the roads." Yet "flight" also signifies the transitory, the ephemeral, the flighty quality of Mitchell's own attempts at meaning. This kind of flight -- escape or loss rather than departure for freedom -- is far different from the Mohammedan sense of the word, which Mitchell wants to use to grant her own flightiness a weightier sense of purpose than it really possesses. The meanings are at odds, and they fight it out within the word itself.

Ultimately, though, we are left with a question of intentionality: Are all these meanings of "hejira" really "there," or does Mitchell's language comment on itself -- indeed, deconstruct itself -- outside her control and design? Just how naive is this airy lady of the canyons, whose new album seems a witness to the inauthenticity of all sincerity? Mitchell mocks herself on Hejira, though just how wittingly it is hard to tell. There seems to be something like bitterness on the album, even if it comes out as a diminished investment in the self and a decline in the earnestness with which the persona is presented. I suspect that this level of irony is firmly within Mitchell's conscious grasp, and that her absurd pose on the album's cover is a caricature she has willfully drawn to subvert her own pretensions as a personality.

As an artist, however, Mitchell clearly lacks any real understanding of what her work is and how it behaves. Aware as she may be of the ironies of her pose as a lover and a soothsayer, the finer ironies of what it means to work in language obviously elude her. These are two distinctly different kids of irony, mind you, and they signify two distinct levels of knowing. The first is dramatic or situational, the way we have of knowing what we don't know, much as Mitchell the self-mocking artiste knows she no longer has the answers. The second, however, is far crueler, since it knows we can never mean what we say. It is this second style of knowing that characterizes all literary language, and that can transform any language into an aesthetic one so long as its syntax displays some delight in the hazards of signification and some deliberation as to how it means to handle them.

These hazards are not only beyond Mitchell's control but also beyond her ken. Her art lacks deliberation because it lacks a knowledge of the instruments it employs. The product of these shortcomings for the artist is the self-consuming artifact that finally consumes its own maker. Hejira signifies Mitchell's flight from precisely this fate. The mythology of the garden still has her in its thrall, and until she confronts it within her conscious imagination, her work will be haunted by the prospect of its own annihilation.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (34980)


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pudwhistle on

Pretentious twaddle from a blowhard critic who is likely incapable of creating either poetry or music and has disdain and condescension for those who do.

Papayoyo on

In other words, how dare this self-educated prairie girl present herself as a "poet"? The entirety of this hit piece reminds me of those online nonsense bots that generate post-modernist, decontructivist drivel by formula. And I fail to see what place ad-hominem attacks ("Queen of El Lay" indeed) have in a supposedly academic appraisal.