With The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell has moved beyond personal confession into the realm of social philosophy. All the characters are American stereotypes who act out socially determined rituals of power and submission in exquisitely described settings. Mitchell’s eye for detail is at once so precise and so panoramic that one feels these characters have very little freedom. They belong to the things they own, wear and observe, to the drugs they take and the people they know as much if not more than to themselves. Most are fixed combatants in tableaux, rituals and scenarios that share Mitchell’s reflections on feminism.
As might be expected, Mitchell’s approach is very cerebral. In “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow,” a poem of almost impenetrable mystery, she voices the core of her vision. Among other things, the song parallels modern forms of female subjugation with both Christian and African mythology in imagery that is disjunctive and telegraphic:
He says “Your notches liberation doll”
And he chains me with that serpent
To that Ethiopian wall
Winds of change patriarchs
Snug in your bible belt dreams.
“Edith and the Kingpin,” a nightmarish urban tableau, portrays a pimp/pusher/mobster initiating a new girl into his stable of dope-entranced concubines. “The Jungle Line” also uses drug dealing as an effective metaphor for sexual and racial enslavement. Here again, Mitchell, never one to disavow the powerful glamour of evil, pulls a brilliant twist, uniting images of cannibalism, wild animals, slave ships and industrial squalor with the gorgeously innocent paintings of imaginary jungle scenes by the late-19th-century French Primitive, Henri Rousseau.
Always Mitchell displays enough moral ambiguity in her lyrics to avoid condescension; her latent impulse to anger is consistently redeemed by a compassionate, seemingly genuine sorrow, as well as by a visual artist’s impulse to perceive the beauty in all things. The tension between Mitchell’s moral and aesthetic principles is resolved with special grace in “Shades of Scarlet Conquering,” the full-scale portrait of a southern belle very similar to Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois. Here Mitchell’s feminist sensibility is implicit in her compassion:
Beauty and madness to be praised
It is not easy to be brave
To walk around in so much need
To carry the weight of all that greed
If Mitchell’s view of the outcome of feminist struggle seems pessimistic, it is not totally hopeless. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” and “Harry’s House — Centerpiece” pose opposite solutions to a similar situation: the suburban wife as her husband’s captive trophy — materially comfortable but emotionally and spiritually famished. In the first song, the wife remains with her husband:
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns
In the second, which is far superior, she leaves him. Here Mitchell’s lyric evokes genuine conflict. Her excited fascination with the chic kineticism of New York high life sets up the tension between a life the writer perceives as attractive but dangerous as well:
He opens up his suitcase
In the continental suite
And people twenty stories down
Colored currents in the street
A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof
Like a dragonfly on a tomb
The song then segues effortlessly into the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross tune, “Centerpiece,” whose smug marriage proposal (” ‘Cause nothing’s any good without you/Baby you’re my centerpiece”) in the context of Mitchell’s story seems devastatingly sexist and shallow as well as seductively hip. The song, moreover, doesn’t disown the wife’s responsibility for the marriage and its breakup. In the coda, the abandoned husband remembers his wife with her “Shining hair and shining skin/Shining as she reeled him in.” Mitchell understands the enormous power and restlessness of a true siren.
Images of entrapment and enslavement (an artist to his patrons) also inform “The Boho Dance,” the album’s other song set in New York. Inspired by The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe’s clever diatribe against the art world establishment, this recollected dialogue depicts the hypocrisy of a scene that only pretends not to be thoroughly commercialized.
Two philosophic songs, “Sweet Bird” and “Shadows and Light,” fill out the album’s schematic concept. The first is a serene meditation, tinged with sadness, on the fading of youth (“all these vain promises on beauty jars”) that develops into a fatalistic lament for all that will eventually be extinct.
In sharp contrast to the languid reflectiveness of “Sweet Bird,” “Shadows and Light,” Mitchell’s first venture into a quasi-liturgical writing style, stands halfway between incantatory prayer and sermon and also unravels some of the clues to the mystery of “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow.” The song unites the antinomies of beauty and evil, freedom and slavery in a supremely relativistic statement of personal faith. While acknowledging the power of devils and gods, Mitchell perceives them as male myths, necessary for the creation of inevitably patriarchal systems. But “laws governing wrong and right,” Mitchell recognizes, are “ever broken.”
If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell’s interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production. This parallels Mitchell’s growing interest in jazz, a form that would seem the ideal vehicle for developing her gift.
Four members of Tom Scott’s L.A. Express are featured on Hissing, but their uninspired jazz-rock style completely opposes Mitchell’s romantic style. Always distinctly modal, Mitchell’s tunes for the first time often lack harmonic focus. They are free-form in the most self-indulgent sense, i.e., they exist only to carry the lyrics. With the exceptions of “Shades of Scarlet Conquering” and “Sweet Bird,” neither of which boasts a strong tune but at least have appropriately lovely textures, the arrangements are as pretentiously chic as they are boring.
The album’s most flagrant example of pseudo-avant-gardism is the drum- and synthesizer-dominated arrangement for “The Jungle Line.” Where Mitchell’s “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” from For the Roses was a truly sinister evocation of addiction, its angular tune coiling on an intensely seductive vocal track, “The Jungle Line,” which is quite similar in theme, sounds brittle, gimmicky and enervated. “Shadows and Light” suffers from too many vocal overdubs and a synthesizer that sounds like a long, solemn fart. The only catchy melody is the non-original “Centerpiece,” and it lacks altogether the wit, sophistication and inventiveness of “Twisted,” Mitchell’s earlier excursion into the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross catalog.
If Joni Mitchell intends to experiment further with jazz, she ought to work with an artist of her own stature, someone like pianist Keith Jarrett whose jazz-classical compositions are spiritually and romantically related to Mitchell’s best work. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is ultimately a great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack. Read it first. Then play it.