Back when Joni Mitchell first began to make a name for herself as a singer and songwriter, what appeared to matter most about her music was the words. Sure, the melodies were important — she was a songwriter, after all, not a poet — but they always seemed secondary, merely a framework for her energies and the ideas of her lyrics.
As Mitchell has grown older, however, the assumed priority of words over music has slowly reversed itself; what is being said in her songs has become less important than how it is being said. This shift in emphasis can partially be chalked up to her flirtations with jazz — it’s kind of difficult to keep the focus on Joni Mitchell when the title proclaims Mingus — but for the most part, her shift in focus has less to do with musical style than with an attention to form, as she wrestles with music itself in an attempt to make the form of her songs as telling as their content.
Ambitious? You bet, and as Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm makes clear, it does have its merits. It isn’t simply that her wordplay is unusually clean and concise; she’s finally found a credible means with which to merge literary devices with musical ones. “My Secret Place,” for instance, uses its duet format and the similarities between her voice and Peter Gabriel’s to illustrate the shifting confidences of shared intimacy, swapping lines or pulling back into separate verses as the balance within the relationship wobbles and shifts. “Lakota” goes even further, building its cadences off the rhythms of a native-American chant to lend Mitchell’s lyrics an almost folkloric cast.
Still, those aren’t the sort of qualities anyone is likely to notice without concentrating some, and that’s indicative of the album’s Achilles’ heel. Chalk Mark may have its strengths as a piece of songwriting, but melodic accessibility isn’t one of them. Mitchell has no trouble setting up a hypnotic catch phrase strong enough to hold a song together, but she doesn’t seem quite up to matching that construction with an equally strong melody line. As a result, the verses to “Number One” and “The Tea Leaf Prophecy” come across almost as afterthoughts, as if they’d been sketched in over the painstaking rhythm bed.
Unsurprisingly, the album is at its most confident when Mitchell reworks existing melodies, as in her eerie resetting of “Corrina, Corrina” within “A Bird That Whistles” or her subtly stunning remake of the cowboy classic “Cool Water.”
To her credit, the sound of Chalk Mark is slick and enticing, with Mitchell making the most of her wide-ranging musical guests (the most unlikely and effective being Billy Idol, who growls engagingly through “Dancin’ Clown”). Alluring as its surface is, though, this album doesn’t invite repeated listenings; in that sense, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is all too aptly named, for its pleasures simply wash away with time.