Joni Mitchell Jon Pareles - Essay

Jon Pareles

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Somewhere along the way, Mitchell's reverent audiences convinced her that her every thought is profound. Having concentrated on herself for so long. Mitchell's discrimination has eroded; she can't separate out the trivia anymore. Her intimacy has become exhaustive—she tells all, every flicker of ambivalence, every last rationalization, seemingly anything that pops into her head. You feel like you're drowning in her stream of consciousness. Her perceptions of the outside world are clear and neatly expressed—only between her head and heart do things get muddled….

Where she takes on larger concepts, Mitchell over-writes. "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," a meditation on the divided self, explains itself endlessly, beating to death a lovely network of images: eagle / airplane / woman // "clarity" vs. snake / train / man / "blind desire." Lines like "We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards / Of some duplicity / Of restless multiplicity" weigh the song down with literalness. I prefer the verbal fantasias on The Hissing of Summer Lawns to this sort of expostulation.

Despite the feverish intellectualizing of its lyrics, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter turns out to be soft at the center. Mitchell, all of a sudden, has subscribed to the two most banal '70s panaceas: dancing ("Cotton Avenue," "Paprika Plains") and dreaming ("Paprika Plains," "Otis and Marlena," "Dreamland," "The Silky Veils of Ardor"). She took a hard look at distances, transience and herself on Hejira; now it seems she'd rather drift and ruminate. (We are expected, however, to drift with her: Most of the lyrics on "Paprika Plains" are unsung, under the assumption that we'll read the lyric sheet for Mitchell's dream / vision of rebirth while the record plays tasteful movie music. Rather arrogant….) Perhaps Mitchell has become so ingrown that she doesn't notice the clichés she's absorbed….

At this point, dreams are an unfortunate metaphor for Mitchell. In "The Silky Veils of Ardor" …, Mitchell gives advice to schoolgirls about men which she herself is unable to follow, sighing "In my dreams we fly." Formless and private, dreams let Mitchell wander anywhere, float into anything, when what she needs most is a sense of proportion.

Jon Pareles, "Four Sides Now," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1978 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Peter Knobler), February, 1978, p. 63.