Everyone has their own favourite period or album by Joni Mitchell and for some, including myself, she peaked artistically with this 1975 release. It was Prince’s favourite Joni album too and I noticed it appeared in several top 10s in the AW’s teenage albums thread.
Context is everything and Joni’s achievement in crafting such a magnificent record as ‘The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ was tainted by the negative reaction of the critics at the time, a reaction which now looks foolish.
The author Leonore Fleischer concluded her 1976 biography ‘Joni Mitchell – Her life, her loves, her music’, at the moment when Joni had just released ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’. It is interesting to note how the tone of the book changed at this point, as if the biographer was perplexed by the shift in her musical style.
Fleischer notes that with her previous album Court and Spark, “Joni had come a long way from the Newport Folk Festival days, and she had brought her audience with her every step of the way.”
Sadly, many of those loyal followers were to desert her after hearing The Hissing of Summer Lawns – an album of beautifully crafted songs played by gifted musicians – but not what her audience was expecting. Although the album went gold upon release, it was the last major selling album of Joni’s career. As she steered her art away from folk in the direction of jazz and world music, she drove away those who loved her for the simple, unadorned confessionals of the Blue album, and the breezy pop of Court and Spark.
Joni herself described the reaction to ‘Hissing’ as the worst critical mauling she ever received. By no means all listeners were dismissive, but many critics and fans rejected her at this point, refusing to accept she wanted to explore new forms of musical expression.
Even now, after all these years of listening to it, I am still astonished by the sound of the record. On vinyl, you have the presence that all well mastered records have; but you also have a mix that weaves the voices and guitars in a way that is truly exceptional. Certainly, this is not the work of some dilettante jazz wannabe, as was the common accusation at the time. This is sophisticated music, and played with such empathy by the band.
The quality of the music on display is unmistakeable from the opening guitar strains of ‘In France They Kiss on Main Street’. Joni employed the band that had accompanied her around Europe in 1975 – Tom Scott and the LA Express – augmented on various tracks by two other lead guitar players, Larry Carlton and Skunk Baxter, in addition to the LAE’s Robben Ford who provides the searing solo on In France… and the dobro on ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’. On backing vocals, she roped in messrs Crosby, Nash and Taylor.
It’s instantly different from what we’ve been accustomed to with Joni. Jazzy chords and a greater emphasis on rhythm and interplay. And if that wasn’t enough to contend with, she threw a spanner in the works with the second track. What’s this? Burundi drums and moog synthesiser? Lyrics that evoke jazz clubs and edgy urban scenes? This was another world entirely. Seen in the context of what was to come, ‘The Jungle Line’ may not sound that radical. But it appeared way before anyone had coined the term ‘world music’; way before Graceland and certainly pre-dating Adam Ant! It was a firm statement of intent and one Joni consolidated on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
A more natural follow-on track to the opener would have been ‘Edith & The Kingpin’, a beautifully realised production, weaving vocals into the smooth backing track in a way that still mesmerises me 40 years later (I’m listening to my vintage vinyl copy as I write this).
The pace picks up again with Joni’s distinctive guitar leading off ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’. Again, the lyrics are a departure from the observational/confessional type her listeners loved her for, and whatever they mean, they are irresistibly cool and evocative.
‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ is a little closer to the sound and the feel of Court and Spark, with piano and strings as the main accompaniment, but it’s a fitting close to the first side of the vinyl record.
The title track begins a sequence of tracks that deal with the complexities of supposed domestic bliss. The woman in the song has been given good reason to quit, but “she stays with a love of some kind, it’s the lady’s choice”.
The mood of sultry nights, of rich and exotic lifestyles less than perfect continues through ‘The Boho Dance’ and ‘Harry’s House’, which drifts off into the Mandel and Hendricks tune ‘Centrepiece’ including a wonderful piano cameo by Joe Sample. Jazz, baby!
As Harry’s House fades out, the plaintive guitar intro of ‘Sweet Bird’ drifts in slowly and Joni is once again alone, facing the compromises and the disappointments of the modern world:
Golden In Time / Cities under the sand / Power, ideals and beauty / Fading, in everyone’s hands…
Which brings us to the final song, Shadows and Light. Joni and her voice. An invocation, a prayer. You can almost imagine you are in church. It’s a fitting end to a spiritually uplifting and absorbing album. One the most brilliant records I’ve ever heard.
But at the time, some people just couldn’t see it. The final paragraph of Leonore Fleischer’s book reads thus: “It would be astonishing indeed if The Hissing Of Summer Lawns reached the same pinnacle of success that For The Roses and Court and Spark did. It is so much less accessible. The songs are not singable by anyone but Joni; less melodic, less personally engaging. The album marks the emergence of a total new style for Joni, no longer on her Magic Princess trip. Still poetical, it has taken Joni away from her customary and very popular subject matter – the fragile nature of the heart and the complex byways it takes in its search for another heart – and into avenues of expression that many of her listeners may be too perplexed to follow.”
And so it proved. But the other narrow-minded criticism heaped on Joni at the time looks ridiculous now that ‘Hissing’ can be seen clearly as one of many creative peaks she reached in the 1970s. Personally, I’ve never understood the negative reaction to the album. The songs are beautifully crafted and confidently performed. For Joni, it was obviously a labour of love and a liberating experience to have her new compositions interpreted by musicians she trusted, having been on the road with them during the summer of 1974. And as history shows, over the next four years she fully justified her ambition, holding her own among some of the best musicians in the world.
There will be some who will say that, from this period, they prefer Hejira. Fair enough, but that follow-up album to Hissing was fairly sparse musically and is chiefly admirable for its lyrical quality. I would contend that Hissing is far richer in its musicality, in the variety of the songs and the moods they evoke. As Joni herself said on the cover, “This record is a total work”.