Joni Mitchell is a long-time member of my personal pantheon. It’s a short list of artists who I revere not just for what they produce, but for the journey that informs their work, for their willingness to live on the edge artistically, and to blur the lines between genres. Miles Davis is another member. Picasso too. As I said, it’s short list.
Given the esteem I hold for Joni, The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a big deal for me. It’s not only her best album, but her artistic peak. It was a continuation of her flirtation with jazz, which began in earnest with her 1974 album Court and Spark. Less than two years after the release of that masterpiece, along came another one for the ages. The Hissing of Summer Lawns was released in November, 1975, and reached #4 on the Billboard album chart. Sadly, Joni’s audience was unprepared to accept the eclectic nature of her work. She hasn’t had another top ten album since then.
The album’s players are a who’s who of the jazz fusion scene of the day. Guitarists Robben Ford, Jeff Baxter, and Larry Carlton are on hand, along with keyboard players Victor Feldman and Joe Sample. John Guerin holds down the drum chair, but it’s the bass playing that really sets the album apart musically. There is brilliant work from Wilton Felder and Max Bennett. I think the album marked the first time that I really focused on the bass playing, and it’s a revelation. Bennett’s playing on the title track is simply stunning, as is Felder’s performance on “Edith and the Kingpin.” And just to prove that she wasn’t cutting her folk rock ties completely, old friends James Taylor, Graham Nash, and David Crosby were along to lend vocal support on the opening track “In France They Kiss On Main Street.”
Perhaps the album’s greatest track is one on which none of the all-star cast performed. “The Jungle Line” features Joni on Moog synthesizer and acoustic guitar, placed over an African drum track borrowed from the Drummers of Burundi. The incorporation of African influences in western music was far from common in 1975, and is another example of Joni being well ahead of her time. Lyrically the song pays tribute to the work of the French painter Henri Rousseau.
Whether she’s writing about a southern belle in “Shades of Scarlett Conquering,” a mobster’s girlfriend in “Edith and the Kingpin,” or a mistreated wife on “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” Joni’s ability to create evocative imagery is the equal of her brilliantly blazing musical talent. To close the album, Joni uses multiple overdubs of her voice placed over a synthesizer bed to address her critics in the hauntingly beautiful “Shadows and Light.” It’s an appropriately groundbreaking ending to an astonishingly innovative work.
Naturally, radio found all of this a little too much to handle. Gone forever was the sweet Canadian folksinger who had won hearts with her gentle acoustic songs. In her place however, rose a musical titan who would lead the way for musicians who were wise enough to see the road she had created. While commercial success of the level she had known would continue to elude her in the years to come, she has never wavered in her determination to follow her muse.