Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (Asylum BB-701) has been out for two months now and I'll wager, considering Christmas and all, that most of Joni Mitchell's hard-core fans have listened to her double album and are quite pleased. That leaves the majority of casual record buyers wondering if it is worth risking $10 or so to hear yet another collection of tortured love songs by the reigning poet-laureate-queen of suburban L.A. My answer is: probably.
Mitchell's music has weathered dramatic changes in style over the last seven years. It has become more complex, a lot more pretentious and, if you will, slicker, since the sparse simplicity of Blue. Basically a singer-songwriter who grew up listening to the folk music and rock 'n' roll of the late '50s and early '60s, Mitchell's early albums feature her distinct, if somewhat basic, guitar and piano styles. Starting with For the Roses in 1972, and over the next three records, she began an involvement with Tom Scott & The L.A. Express, and her music began to take on a "band sound." The arrangements departed from her earlier style, incorporating jazz and rock influences, and Mitchell started to adopt a more full-bodied, expressive approach to singing: for example, bending her notes at the end of a phrase or word. The sound was tasteful, even exciting, but also commercially slick and seamlessly perfect. Some thought Mitchell was beginning to compromise her music by playing with "a bunch of L.A. jazz hacks."
The release of Hejira in 1976 introduced a new set of problems. The album was musically impressive. Mitchell was now playing electric guitar (completely dropping the piano) and had chosen jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Larry Carlton to accompany her on most of the cuts. The music was dense, the songs seeming to lack any memorable tunes. The lyrics centered around a complex personal imagery of travel and flight. It requires work to separate and absorb each song---an effort I'm afraid the average record buyer isn't comfortable with.
That brings us to Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which may be Joni Mitchell's most ambitious effort to date. As do most double albums, it contains its share of filler, like the extended instrumental passages of "Paprika Plains" and an unnecessary recording of "Jericho." (I prefer the simplicity of the original arrangement on Miles of Aisles.)
The album resists adopting any central concept, like the social commentary of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, or "The Road" in Hejira. Mitchell's forte has always been the strength of her lyrics. She is perhaps unparalleled in her ability as a songwriter to observe the complexities of social interaction and romance. Her insight and awareness of the contradictions embodied in her lifestyle create an exciting tension in the best of her work. Nowhere is this more evident than in the title cut, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter." Her central metaphor equates "the eagle" with the clarity of her upbringing in rural Canada and "the snake" with the carnal desires and decadence of her city lifestyle. Her contrast of the two images is remarkable:
I come from open prairie
Given some wisdom and a lot of jive!
Last night the ghosts of my old ideals
Reran on channel five
And it howled so spooky for its eagle soul
I nearly broke down and cried
But the split tongued spirit just laughed at me
He said, "Your serpent cannot be denied."
Our serpents love the whiskey bars
They love the romance of the crime. . . .
We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards
Of some duality
Of restless multiplicity
(Oh say can you see)
Restless for streets and honkey tonks
Restless for home and routine
Restless for country-safety---and her
Restless for the likes of reckless me. . . .
The eagle and the serpent are at war in me
The serpent fighting for blind desire
The eagle for clarity
What strange prizes these battles bring
These hectic joys---these weary blues
Puffed up and strutting when I think I win
Down and shaken when I think I lose.
The reason I quote at such length from sections of the song is to partially illustrate her impressive command of language and imagery. Mitchell has a knack for including little shocks and creative twists in her lyrics, like: "There was a moon and a street lamp / I didn't know I drank such a lot / 'Till I pissed a tequila-anaconda / The full length of the parking lot!" ("Talk to Me")
She also has developed strength as a social observer. Her description of the women's washroom in a disco is sweltering and repugnant:
It fell from midnight skies
It drummed on the galvanized
In the washroom, women tracked the rain
Up to the make-up mirror
Liquid soap and grass
And Jungle Gardenia crash
On Pine-Sol and beer . . .
It's stifling in here . . .
I've got to get some air . . .
I'm going outside to get some air.
Musically, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter varies from the old-English-ballad finger-picking style of "The Silky Veils of Ardor" to the full orchestral arrangement of "Paprika Plains." Jaco Pastorius' fluid bass-playing is perfect for Mitchell's slightly choppy rhythms.
She takes risks on two of the album's cuts and gets decidedly mixed results. The aforementioned "Paprika Plains," clocking in at 16:19, attempts to link childhood memories of Indians and the clashing of cultures and times with a rainstorm and activity inside a disco. Unfortunately, the epic sweep of the lyrics is not matched by the embarrassingly dull instrumental center of the song. Mitchell's plodding piano backed by Michael Gibb's orchestra sounds like a clumsy re-creation of Dvorak's "New World" symphony. Only it's boring.
Fortunately, another experiment works. She merges an instrumental called "The Tenth World" successfully into one of her own songs, "Dreamland." A band of percussionists, led by Airto on a surdo (bass drum), generate a rhythm style somewhere between salsa and African music. As the call-and-response chorus fades into animal noises, Mitchell's "Dreamland" begins, her voice rising above the beating drums and Chaka Khan's vocal embellishments weaving in and out of the] melody. It may not have much to do with "Both Sides Now" or other songs from Mitchell's past, but it is to her credit that her songwriting is able to develop and integrate a variety of musical forms.
It is sometimes tempting to lump Joni Mitchell in with the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and other musicians from L.A. True, their albums all exhibit a certain slick professionalism and a similar "studio sound," but the comparison ends there. Mitchell is one of the few great poets of popular music, along with Dylan and possibly Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and Jackson Browne. It is worth the effort one has to initially make to appreciate the complex imagery in her music.
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Added to Library on August 11, 2021. (591)
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