The Hissing of Summer Lawns
By 1975, Joni Mitchell had already well established herself as a bit of a lovable fruitcake. Although she was well regarded as a perfectly capable acoustic performer with a penchant for amazing lyrics, the stylistic twists and turns she had taken since her debut (a 1968 album produced by David Crosby) had continually placed her head and shoulders above the then-crowded pack of female folkies. Whether it was the intimate wooziness of Blue, the loose funkiness of Ladies of the Canyon or the jazzy sparsity of Court & Spark, Mitchell’s thoroughly unique voice shone through all of her work. Nonetheless, all of that work had remained barely within the broad bounds of “acoustic” pop stemming from a folk background. After all, this was the woman who wrote “Woodstock” and “The Circle Game.”
But, with the release of 1974’s live album, Miles of Aisles, Mitchell seemed to completely abandon “folk” in favor of forging a very real connection between her uniquely evocative lyrics and the music that accompanied them. The result was The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. A dense piece of work that combines jazz undertones, multi-track technology, rhythmic explorations and an unrelenting spaciousness, Summer Lawns utterly defines the possibilities of a musician fully realizing their inspiration. Like Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life (which it preceded by a full year), it’s a complete and self-contained work that could have been created by nobody other than the artist whose name is on the cover.
Previously, Mitchell had used her lyrics as the template on which to build her songs. Whether it was “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Blonde In The Bleachers” or the woeful entirety of Blue, she had always been an artist to whom the lyrics were paramount. Even the sonically experimental Court & Spark (which is the most direct stylistic antecedent of Summer Lawns) rested upon the direct beauty of her words for its success. Here, however, the words and music are wrapped tightly together, knitting a complex tapestry that’s more tone poem than pop music. To be sure, Mitchell continued her “storytelling” on this album, and most of these songs evoke fractured characters in bizarre situations.
Yet on a track like the intense and tough “The Jungle Line,” she manages to paint a picture using both her Rousseau references and a combination the throbbing rhythms of “the warrior drums of Burundi” and a Moog synthesizer. Likewise, the jazzy touches of the title track amplify the shallow melancholy of the subject matter while the deceptively simple acoustic guitar and atmospheric touches of “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” betray the sweet anger of which Mitchell is singing. However, it’s the closing track – “Shadows And Light” – that most clearly defines the ethos of Summer Lawns. A soaringly majestic solo piece, Mitchell accompanies herself using an Arp, a Farfisa and dozens of her own vocal tracks. The effect is somewhere between Catholic liturgy and sheer sonic bliss. And there’s not an acoustic guitar in sight.
First appeared October 2000 at CDNow.com.