If the 1960s were the decade of the classic single, the Seventies were the decade of what was quaintly called the album. And for the first half of the Seventies Joni Mitchell released a series of records that arguably were as breathtaking as the output of The Beatles in the last five years of the previous decade.
Blue, For the Roses, Court And Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and Hejira represent the apogee of the Canadian’s work, a style often termed ‘confessional’ singer-songwriting but is much, much more. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, released in 1975, for example, is the densest work of the five. Avant-garde, jazzy, experimental and complex music is mixed with strange, inscrutable, allusive poetic imagery in her most ambitious record yet.
Mitchell was justifiably proud of its scope. And yet it received a mixed reception from critics, negativity that stung Mitchell at the time. Some thought it pretentious and the gist of Rolling Stone’s review was that, while those poetic lyrics were impressive, the album lacked good tunes.
In hindsight, it’s an odd criticism. The opening track, In France They Kiss On Main Street, for example, is a perfect infectious, radio-friendly three-minute single, a paean to growing up in the Fifties with the Everly Brothers providing the background music. As a signpost to the album, though, In France They Kiss On Main Street, with its tumbling chorus – 'And we were rolling, rolling, rock ’n’ rolling' – leads the listener in the wrong direction.
There is a hint that Hissing is going in a different way from Court And Spark and going to be more exotic in the record’s sleeve. In those days album sleeves were important little works of art themselves. Mitchell would have seen photographs published in the February 1975 issue of National Geographic by the Brazilian photo-journalist Wolf Jesco von Puttkamer of the Amazonian tribe the Kreen-Akrore, hunters whose future existence was in doubt. Mitchell copied a picture in ink of some of the hunters carrying a giant python through a jungle for the album cover. In the background is a skyline of skyscrapers, representing the world threatening this reclusive tribe.
The cover art and a picture in the sleeve of Mitchell on her back in a swimming pool are eye-catching. The snake is the motif through the album. The hissing of the summer lawns is the sound of the sprinklers on the grass of the opulent ranch houses of the Californian rich but also the hissing of the snakes represents something sinister in the lives of these bored, unfulfilled people. Mitchell herself was living in one of these mansions in Bel Air with her then boyfriend, the drummer John Guerin, who also plays the moog synthesiser on Hissing.
And so, from the poppy upbeat album opener, The Hissing of Summer Lawns takes a 100 per cent turn into unexpected territory. The Jungle Line, featuring the warrior drums of Burundi, traces direct connections between Africa and the jazz clubs of New York. It also pre-dates by over a decade the album that most famously incorporates African music with western rock, Paul Simon’s Graceland, when Simon joined forces with esteemed musicians such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Tao Ea Matsekha. The snake motif coils itself around this song, particularly the 'poppy snake', an allusion to heroin being trafficked into those clubs. Mitchell herself plays moog on this startling track.
All 10 tracks are, in fact, pretty startling, from In France They Kiss On Main Street to the closing Shadows And Light, a hymn-like melange of organ and voices that was one of Mitchell’s favourites despite one of the 26 overdubbed vocals being out of tune. At the heart of the album is Shades of Scarlett Conquering, the tale of a high-maintenance southern belle in full Gone With The Wind mode, 'mimicking tenderness she sees in sentimental movies'.
Out in the wind in crinolines
Chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn
Through stand-in boys and extra players
Magnolias hopeful in her auburn hair
There is a beautiful string arrangement by Dale Oehler and subtle electric guitar by Larry Carlton behind Mitchell’s piano playing on this song about a woman with her 'blood-red fingernails' and impossible demands.
She comes from a school of southern charm
She likes to have things her way
Any man in the world holding out his arm
Would soon be made to pay
It is a dark song about an actress who perhaps left her pampered life in the south for Hollywood where she didn’t quite become the next Vivien Leigh. The line about her covering 'her eyes in the X-rated scenes, running from the reels' hints at the seediness behind the outward glamour and a woman on the edge of madness who carries 'the weight of all that greed'. Elvis Costello once said he couldn’t think of a better song than Shades Of Scarlett Conquering.
Forty-four years on, the reputation of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns has grown and those snakes in the grass who were too quick to judge it proved wrong. Hissing, with its peerless musicianship and dream-like lyrics, belongs to an era when albums, such as Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book and Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, were genuine masterpieces that sound as fresh today as they did on their release.
Joni Mitchell’s output after the Seventies was uneven. There were great moments but nothing surpasses her purple patch in the first half of that decade. Blue is usually close to the top of polls of great albums but The Hissing of Summer Lawns, I believe, is her most beguiling work.
Neil Morton on Chinese Café/Unchained Melody here