Joni Mitchell

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Janet Maslin

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[The unpredictable caliber of Joni Mitchell's] work has been as exciting as it is frustrating. Now, for once, she has gambled and lost. The best that can be said for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is that it is an instructive failure.

Since Blue, Mitchell has demonstrated an increasing fondness for formats that don't suit her. Not that this awkwardness can't be occasionally successful: on Hejira, she clung so resolutely to even the stray flat notes that the impression was an attractive one of stubbornness and strength. But, increasingly, Mitchell's pretensions have shaped her appraisal of her own gifts. At her best, she is a keen observer but not a particularly original one, and she has never been an interesting chronicler of experience other than her own, though [Don Juan's Reckless Daughter] finds her trying…. Her most resonant lyrics have been simple and concise, spinning out images rather than overburdening them, but lately the endearing modesty of "California" or "Just like This Train" seems far behind her. These days, Mitchell appears bent on repudiating her own flair for popular songwriting, and on staking her claim to the kind of artistry that, when it's real, doesn't need to announce itself so stridently.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a double album that should have been a single album. It's sapped of emotion and full of ideas that should have remained whims, melodies that should have been riffs, songs that should have been fragments. At its worst, it is a painful illustration of how different the standards that govern poetry and song lyrics can be, and an indication that Joni Mitchell's talents, stretched here to the breaking point, lend themselves much more naturally to the latter form….

The painful banality of Mitchell's lyrics—there is nothing said here that she hasn't said better before, except those things she should have kept to herself—is almost the least of her problems. Behind a treacly title like "The Silky Veils of Ardor" lurks an even treaclier notion: that the romantic visions of love put forth by certain folk songs are one thing, that reality is another, and that the singer apparently yearns for both….

"Talk to Me" is the LP's most enduring number: as a terrible, embarrassing song about feeling terribly embarrassed, it has a scary appropriateness. But even though there are no real solutions to the album's mysteries or explanations for its lapses, Joni Mitchell's resilience has been demonstrated often enough to make speculation about such things appear superfluous. She's bound to be back when the time is right and her mood is less drowsy, less disengaged that it seems here. Until then, we're left with Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, in all its recklessness.

Janet Maslin, "Joni Mitchell's Reckless and Shapeless Daughter," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1978; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 260, March 9, 1978, p. 54.

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