The Hissing of Summer Lawns
Released: November 1975
Chart Peak: #4
Weeks Charted: 17
Certified Gold: 12/4/75
With The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell has moved beyond personal confession into the realm of social philosophy. All the characters are American stereotypes who act out socially determined rituals of power and submission in exquisitely described settings. Mitchell's eye for detail is at once so precise and so panoramic that one feels these characters have very little freedom. They belong to the things they own, wear, observe, to the drugs they take and the people they know as much if not more than to themselves. Most are fixed combatants in tableaux, rituals and scenarios that share Mitchell's reflections on feminism.
As might be expected, Mitchell's approach is very cerebral. In "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow," a poem of almost impenetrable mystery, she voices the core of her vision. Among other things, the song parallels modern forms of female subjugation with both Christian and African mythology in imagery that is disjunctive and telegraphic.
"Edith and the Kingpin," a nightmarish urban tableau, portrays a pimp/pusher/mobster initiating a new girl into his stable of dope-entranced concubines. "The Jungle Line" also uses drug dealing as an effective metaphor for sexual and racial enslavement. Here again, Mitchell, never one to disavow the powerful glamour of evil, pulls a brilliant twist, uniting images of cannibalism, wild animals, slave ships and industrial squalor with the gorgeously innocent paintings of imaginary jungle scenes by the late-19th-century French Primitive, Henri Rousseau.
Always Mitchell displays enough moral ambiguity in her lyrics to avoid condescension; her latent impulse to anger is consistently redeemed by a compassionate, seemingly genuine sorrow, as well as aby a visual artist's impulse to perceive the beauty in all things. The tension between Mitchell's moral and aesthetic principles is resolved with special grace in "Shades of Scarlet Conquering," the full-scale portrait of a southern belle very similar to Tennessee Williams's Blanche DuBois. Here Mitchell's feminist sensibility is implicit in her compassion:
If Mitchell's view of outcome of feminist struggle seems pessimistic, it is not totally hopeless. "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" and "Harry's House -- Centerpiece" pose opposite solutions to a similar situation: the suburban wife and her husband's captive trophy -- materially comfortable but emotionally and spiritually famished. In the first song, the wife remains with her husband:
In the second, which is far superior, she leaves him. Here Mitchell's lyric evokes genuine conflict. Her excited fascination with the chic kineticism of New York high life sets up the tension between a life the writer perceives as attractive but dangerous as well:
Images of entrapment and enslavement (an artist to his patrons) also inform "The Boho Dance," the album's other song set in New York. Inspired by The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe's clever diatribe against the art world establishment, this recollected dialogue depicts the hypocrisy of a scene that only pretends not to be thoroughly commercialized.
Two philosophic songs, "Sweet Bird" and "Shadows and Light," fill out the album's schematic concept. The first is a serene meditation, tinged with sadness, on the fading of youth ("all these vain promises on beauty jars") that develops into a fatalistic ament for all that will eventually be extinct.
In sharp contrast to the languid reflectiveness of "Sweet Bird," "Shadows and Light," Mitchell's first venture into a quasi-liturgical writing style, stands halfway between incantatory prayer and sermon and also unravels some of the clues to the mystery of "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow." The song unites the antinomonies of beauty and evil, freedom and slavery in a supremely relativistic statement of personal faith. While acknowledging the power of devils and gods, Mitchell perceives them as male myths, necessary for the creation of inevitably patriarchal systems. But "laws governing wrong and right," Mitchell recognizes, are "ever broken."
If The Hissing of Summer Lawns offers substantial literature, it is set to insubstantial music. There are no tunes to speak of. Since Blue, Mitchell's interest in melody has become increasingly eccentric, and she has relied more and more on lyrics and elaborate production. This parallels Mitchell's growing interest in jazz, a form that would seem the ideal vehicle for developing her gift.
Four members of Tom Scott's L.A. Express are featured on Hissing, but their uninspired jazz-rock style completely opposes Mitchell's romantic style. Always distinctly modal, Mitchell's tunes for the first time often lack harmonic focus. They are free-form in the most self-indulgent sense, i.e., they exist only to carry the lyrics. With the exceptions of "Shades of Scarlet Conquering" and "Sweet Bird," neither of which boasts a strong tune but at least have appropriately lovely textures, the arrangements are as pretentiously chic as they are boring.
The album's most flagrant example of pseudo-avant-gardism is the drum- and synthesizer-dominated arrangement for "The Jungle Line." Where Mitchell's "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" from For the Roses was a truly sinister evocation of addiction, its angular tune coiling on an intensely seductive vocal track, "The Jungle Line," which is quite similar in theme, sounds brittle, gimmicky and enervated. "Shadows and Light" suffers from too many vocal overdubs and a synthesizer that sounds like a long, solemn fart. The only catchy melody is the non-original "Centerpiece," and it lacks altogether the wit, sophistication and inventiveness of "Twisted," Mitchell's earlier excursion into the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross catalog.
If Joni Mitchell intends to experiment further with jazz, she ought to work with an artist of her own stature, someone like pianist Keith Jarrett whose jazz-classical compositions are spiritually and romantically related to Mitchell's best work. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is ultimately a great collection of pop poems with a distracting soundtrack. Read it first. Then play it.
- Stephen Holden, Rolling Stone, 1/15/76.
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 her new album 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. Or she has them (us) looking for something through "lifestyle" affectations in New York, city of cities, or trying to beat back boredom and rage in Suburbia -- especially this, I think. She has built a song around the Johnny Mandel-Jon Hendricks relic of jazzbo slickness called "Centerpiece" that deals not only with the problem of "living happily ever after" but with the problem of centerpieces -- their having more to do with making an impression than with supplying nourishment.
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. It is difficult too because it doesn't sound like anything we're accustomed to, familiar as we are with the machinery behind the popular song, nor does it go out of its way to be pretty or tuneful. "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.
Throughout, I am alternately struck by the notion that she has done little work on her melodies, that she has just ambled along the path of least resistance, and by the opposite notion (fostered by the delicacy of the tune to "Shades of Scarlet Conquering," or that of "Shadows and Light") that she is up to something too subtle for me to detect at this early stage in my relationship with the music. The lyrics, too, sometimes remind me of what Wilfrid Sheed said about symbolism: if the reader (or listener) gets it, you've taken an unnecessary roundabout way of communicating with him, and if he doesn't get it you haven't communicated with him at all. That's just the trouble with symbolism, though, and certainly no reason not to use it. There's more to poetry than simple communication -- otherwise telegrams would be literature. And so 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?
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 2/76.
More musical progression for Mitchell, who surrounds her always unique and intriguing lyrics with symphonic, Indian, jazzy, and African melody lines. Extremely sophisticated musical changes throughout the LP. Lyrically, Mitchell is always interesting, centering in this time on scenes from France, various other less interesting cities, and short stories dealing with people of all kinds. She is best at painting song portraits, and that skill remains strong here. Lyrically and musically probably her most consistent effort yet, exposing a number of elements to her versatility we have not heard together before. Guests include David Crosby, Graham Nash, James Taylor, Joe Sample, John Guerin, Larry Carlton, =Bud Shank=P7518=, Max Bennett, and Jeff Baxter. Best cuts: "In France They Kiss On Main Street," "The Jungle Line," "Shades Of Scarlet Conquering," "The Bobo Dance," "Harry's House-Centerpiece," "Sweet Bird."
- Billboard, 1975.
Mitchell's transition from great songwriter to not-bad poet is meeting resistance from her talent and good sense, but I guess you can't fight "progress." Not that she's abandoned music -- the supple accompaniment here is the most ambitious of her career. But if she wants jazz she could do better than Tom Scott's El Lay coolcats, and the sad truth is that only on a couple of cuts -- "The Jungle Line" and "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" -- do these skillful sound effects strengthen the lyrics. The result is that Mitchell's words must stand pretty much on their own, and while she can be rewarding to read -- "The Boho Dance" is a lot sharper than most I'm-proud-to-be-a-star songs -- she's basically a West Coast Erica Jong. If that sounds peachy to you, enjoy. B
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Mitchell turned her back on stardom with this admirable, idiosyncratic effort. * * * *
- Dan Heilman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns continues to explore jazzy and impressionistic song veins using the same all-star jazz aces who worked on Court and Spark. * * * *
- Hilary Weber, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Fans of Joni Mitchell found The Hissing mildly shocking at first. Written after her brief participation in Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue show, it proved that her swing toward jazz was rather more profound than had been anticipated. Loosely recorded, Joni allowed her extraordinary blend of musicians to the freedom to wander from the core of the songs. The idea was to take lovely melodies and then stretch them, ever so slightly out of shape -- a theme reflected in the artwork for the record, painted by Mitchell herself. Although the songs were strikingly complex, both musically and lyrically, there remains a hypnotic lightness to the whole affair. As the album's title strongly hints, this is a highly evocative record, as dreamy as a hot summer afternoon and as gently intoxicating. Not surprisingly, the words convey a heavy ambiguity and a dreamlike quality is retained throughout. Intriguingly, the subject of rock'n'roll is repeatedly referred to as if it is the art form of a parallel or distant universe. Only on "Centerpiece," deep into side two, does the whole thing break from mild experimentation into solid swing, and then only briefly. The art on the sleeve was by Ms. Mitchell herself.
- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.
As baffling as it is beautiful, Summer Lawns confirmed Mitchell as the "songwriter's songwriter." Fearlessly original, presaging the rock/pop world's fascination for all things jazz and world by a decade, the artist pigeonholed as a confessional folk star dazzled with an eclectic collection of symphonic-style compositions.
Lamenting the spiritual bankruptcy of the U.S. meritocracy, Mitchell's vision has also expanded thematically, turning her usual inward gaze out to the Seventies social-political scene. One of the album's recurring images (and leitmotifs) is the savage earth heart that beats beneath the respectability -- for example, the Burundi drums on "The Jungle Line," the African imagery in "Boho Dance," and the album cover, featuring a group of natives carrying a vast snake across stylized suburban lawns.
The songs are stuffed with rich, literary imagery. If "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" appears impenetrable, you may have not listened to the album in the spirit in which it was conceived -- as a whole. Such precocity, however, is rewarded with "Edith" and "Scarlett," in which Mitchell's sublime, arched vocals perfectly match the melody and lyrical sentiment. "Harry's House/Centerpiece" is also a gem, particularly as it segues into the Johnny Mandel-Jon Hendrick tune. The hymn-like closer "Shadows and Light" was one of her favorites (though 1 of its 26 overdubbed vocals is out of tune).
- Louise Sugrue, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
This avant-pop shift from Court and Spark was Mitchell's next masterpiece, though few recognized it at the time. Shifting her perspective from interior to exterior, Mitchell turned tables on the male gaze and stared down America's heart of darkness. Arrangements are intricate, layered and harmonically packed, yet the music eddies as naturally as a stream. With its radical mix of samples, synths and Burundi drumming, "The Jungle Line" would echo through Eighties pop (see Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy"). Superfan Prince is said to have once called it "the last album I loved all the way through."
- Will Hermes, Rolling Stone, 5/19.
Joni Mitchell got deeper into glamorous L.A. groove theory on her seventh album, reveling in the possibilities of pure melody. "In France They Kiss on Main Street" bids farewell to the rock & roll era altogether in a blaze of freewheeling, jazzy joy.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns was chosen as the 258th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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