There comes a time when anticipation must be replaced by reality, when all wishes for a desired end recede into the starkness of fact. In an artist's career, these revelatory moments can occur more than once and, occasionally, there is a brief return to some previously acknowledged reference point. But there is an air of permanence in the sound of Joni Mitchell's latest release, "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" (Asylum BB-701), which should extinguish even the faintest glimmer of optimism in the most fervent of her diehards and clue everyone in on what the performer herself has been telling us for three albums now: Joni Mitchell is not happy.
Not that happiness is necessarily a measure of anyone's creative worth; Hemingway was obviously not a laugh-a-minute nor was Van Gogh the quintessential kid at camp. Still, when you deal with a mass audience, there has to be some concession to that audience's taste. Bottom line, the public makes the final judgment.
The judgment on Joni Mitchell's last two records was that many people grew tired of hearing about her current oppressions, repressions and depressions. Many longed for a move away from her self-appointed role as Popular Spokesperson for Urban Womanhood, and toward a return to the lyric brilliance and vibrant feel of "Court and Spark" (Asylum 7E-1001). Most probably would have settled for some semblance of the introspective but universal sentiments of "Blue" (Reprise MS 2038).
Forget all that. "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" is easily the most acidic and strident of Mitchell's works. Spread out over two records (though all four sides are scandalously brief and add up to about 1 1/2 albums for the price of two), it is filled with pain and heartbreak. But the symptoms and circumstances she describes are peculiarly self-centered.
One of Mitchell's primary assets has been her uncanny ability to express our feelings through her life and, usually, in a musically inventive way. Now, though, Joni is tired of all that and she pivots on her spiked heel and jams her invective back down our formerly understanding spinal cord. "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" is her way of finishing the discussion she began in "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" (Asylum 7E-1051). That album said, essentially, that the modern woman's life is not easy. Now she is saying that it is her modern life that isn't easy.
Curiously, it is the music rather than the lyrics that reveals just how intense Mitchell has become. "court and Spark's" "Car on the Hill" has an instrumental passage that incorporates voices and sounds a lot like, well, mourners. The effect works well there and the foreshadowing now evident was lost in the overall energy of the album, but came "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" and it was more pronounced, especially during "Edith and the Kingpin" and "Harry's House Centerpiece."
Her last album, "Hejira" (Asylum 7E-1087), stripped away all but the barest musical elements and that coldness stayed. On "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," "Hejira's" steely sound remains intact (the title cut runs almost identical to "Black Crow") but everything is sharpened to a razor's edge.
The arrangements fester and burn and Jaco Pastorius' bass swoops through each track like a condor, claws extended, zeroing in on its prey. Mitchell's own guitar, once the silky accompaniment for her passionate vocals, is clipped and metallic and all the songs hum like a large generator. There is no warmth, only details; Jack Webb had more compassion when he barked "Just the facts" on Dragnet."
Every possible avenue for sympathy is short-circuited. "Talk to Me" lacks both the humor and the innocence that any other delivery could have produced and the song becomes a desperate plea rather than a value statement. "Off Night Backstreet" is downright chilling despite being a brilliantly focused composition -- spare but emotionally dense.
The words, though, bypass any emotion and simply state the situation:
"MAybe I'm just kidding myself when
I say I love you
I don't know.
Loving without trusting
You get frostbite and sunstroke.
I Wish I felt nothing!"
One need only listen to the studio version of "Jericho" included here and compare it to the live cut done three years ago on "Miles of Aisles" (Asylum AB-202) to hear how Joni's changed in that span. Gone is the spirit and tone -- that knowing camaraderie of universal sadness -- implicit in her tales of love's hardships. In their place is bitterness and the gnashing of teeth underneath the phrasings.
Joni Mitchell still sings like a nightingale when she chooses ("The Silky Veils of Ardor") and she is a premier vocal expressionist whose choice of topics remains her own. Yet her attitude now distorts previously beautiful features. It is an attitude that no longer influences her art but dominates it. And, like dorian Gray, her once elegant portrait grows uglier and uglier with each stroke.