Joni Mitchell

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Noel Coppage

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Joni Mitchell's viewpoint has usually been first-person-singular, with the world seen as an incidental part of the examination of the quandary inside a relationship. In … "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the viewpoint seems more nearly general, less specific, and the stories she tells collectively yield some truths (or maybe they're only suspicions) that are social as well as personal.

There is still the question of how much romanticism balanced against how much "reality" is good for us, but it is complicated this time out by the irony of what has happened to the settings, the environments—the city has paradoxically become the place primeval, while the country (nowadays the suburbs) has become the place where too much civilization is beginning to take its toll. Joni Mitchell shows us people trying to recapture a certain irresponsibility or a spontaneity—the ability to dance, to play—and they come off looking either a bit tawdry or frantic….

It is a difficult album, you see, partly because Mitchell is not moralizing, not boiling a situation down so any right-thinking listener can interpret it in only one way…. The Jungle Line, for example, is about an asphalt jungle—but seen as something a beautiful madman such as the "primitive" painter Theodore Rousseau might have created ("Beauty and madness to be praised," she says in another song, about a movie-style greed for the root flavor of life). It is an experiment, a successful one, exquisitely lyrical images enhanced by almost frightening synthesizer whoops and warrior drums, and it doesn't mind being pulled out of the album to be considered as a separate whole. Most of the other pieces don't disengage from the overall context quite so easily. (p. 75)

[The] appeal of Mitchell's metaphors lies in their richness, in how long you can continue to pull new ideas and fresh slants out of them, no matter how many of them came from her head, how many from yours.

I hope I've made it clear that this isn't much of a party record; you'll have to deal with it privately, as you would read a book. But it should keep you occupied for about as long as you want it to—and how often does "popular" music do that? (p. 76)

Noel Coppage, "More Than a Sprinkling of Symbolism in Joni Mitchell's 'The Hissing of Summer Lawns'," in Stereo Review (reprinted by permission of the author), February, 1976, pp. 75-6.

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Stephen Holden


Noel Coppage