In the title song of 1976’s Hejira, Joni Mitchell sang about “the petty wars that shell shock love away.” Her view of romance as war made her a great diarist, detailing each volley of each battle with a historian’s insight and detail. After years spent musing in her parlor, Mitchell has concluded that Armageddon is coming, and now she’s writing about real wars. It’s not surprising that Joni can’t unravel world politics in a couplet the way she could a romance, but it is disappointing that after a three-year silence, her social criticisms are merely the sort of bloodless liberal homilies you would expect from Rush.
In “The Three Great Stimulants,” “Tax-Free,” “Dog Eat Dog” and “Shiny Toys,” Mitchell declares herself for drag queens, punks and “simple joys” (“Watching the glorious sun setting on the bay”) and against big business, mercenary lawyers, Eighties hedonism and Reaganoid preachers. The latter target turns up in two different songs, which is ironic, since there’s as much sanctimony in this record as in the smuggest Falwell sermon. This could be a deliberate move on Mitchell’s part: sensing the populist ripple of post-Band Aid activism, and knowing that most of her Woodstock peers are either dead or trying to get there, Joni reenters the great struggle with a plainspoken message to motivate her generation. This explains both “Impossible Dreamer,” which may be about John Lennon (there’s a direct reference to “Give Peace a Chance”) but is certainly about lost idealism, and “Ethiopia,” with its parched Japanese flute, choked imagery and painfully enunciated chorus.
But if Joni wants to reach beyond the faithful who’ll buy this LP to keep their collections complete, why is Dog Eat Dog such an unpleasant listen? “Good Friends,” the Michael McDonald duet that opens the album, features a big, swiveling beat from bassist and coproducer (and husband) Larry Klein that Joni subverts with a clipped melody. Augmenting the modalities she’s favored for the last decade with the industrial clank of a synthesizer, courtesy of Thomas Dolby, the music simulates the soullessness of our “culture in decline” without revealing anything new about it. While Joni’s venom is an encouraging sign, its clumsy expression is unnerving.