Hear The Hissing Of Summer Lawns

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

With summer officially in practice the enchantment of Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns seems ripe for the recall.  For me, Hissing marks the apex of Mitchell's career, as well as a bold detour into musical experimentation that further pushed the artistic envelope.

Dreamily it floats warm, with introspection that magnifies Mitchell's storytelling bravado. It's not as pensive (and hellishly depressing) as Blue, commercially sound as Court & Spark, or as majestic as Hejira, but Hissing is complex, stylish, adventurous, and more or less is the underrated classic of Mitchell's album cannon. At the time of its release it was considered to be Mitchell's first "flop", as Rolling Stone (during a time when their opinion did mean everything) labeled it as one of the worst releases of 1975.


You know the saying: "Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone has one." Well, it's true. So my 'bellybutton' response is that The Hissing Of Summer Lawns isn't the worst of 1975, nor is it the worst in Mitchell's catalog. Sure, maybe I'm bias because this is the first Joni Mitchell album I listened to, but truly, I find that Hissing shows Mitchell not only at her sophisticated and wordsmith best, but also at her most experimental as she hopscotches from one genre to another, maturing and reinventing her sound as it plays on.

Her flirtation with Jazz is in full swing ("Harry's House/Centerpiece") as her decision to incorporate members of the Jazz fusion group, The Crusaders help to pad her rhythm section, allowing the album to mold into a fuller, polished, and less acoustic sound. She even takes a risk to utilize new technical advances like the use of abstract overdubs (the eerie "Shadows & Light") and Moog machines ("The Jungle Line"). Vocally, Mitchell has always practiced soulful phonetics, but the expansion of this now laces her in lieu with likes of Roberta Flack, Minnie Riperton, and Phoebe Snow all while spinning allegories fit for novelization.

Hissing innocently begins with "In France They Kiss On The Main Street". Accompanied by 2/3 of the Crosby, Stills and Nash outfit (David Crosby and Graham Nash) and James Taylor, Mitchell muses about the freedom of youthfulness, the early buddings of romance, sex, and the discovery to practicing a non-conforming lifestyle. As it strolls along on a jubilant chorus and spirited guitars, there is an air of past tense, a longing for what was. So don't let the 'rock n' rolling' feel-good opener lead you to believe that all of Hissing follows a similar plush and warm affair. Musically, it does, but Hissing's thematic nature veers jarringly after the fact as it swings back and forth between cautionary tales of disappointment and isolation, and strives for hollow independence.

Feminism is a subject thickly woven in the fabric of Hissing. We must remember that the album was made in 1975, around the height of the women's liberation movement, and this slice of social readjustment does carve out a nice chunk of the material here. Even with her strong opinions, Mitchell doesn't overload her femme preach as she more so takes a sideline approach and becomes an observer, weaving tales of kept women, bored June Cleaver housewives, and wandering "I don't need a man!" independents and doing it all without judgement.

On the haunting title track, as dejected keyboard chimes and plush guitar strums coat the lyrics, Mitchell plays watchful neighbor to a woman who is pretty much bored out of her skull as she lives not for herself, but for her wealthy husband who keeps her confided and bejeweled, a fate she herself has unfortunately fashioned. In contrast, the string laden "Shades Of Scarlet Conquering" hints at the one-woman-show crusade of its Gone With The Wind namesake, and how even being an independent woman has it's hollow victories. Mitchell's tone when shouting towards the end: "a woman must have everything" is a mix of defiant unwavering yet uncertain angst. A glimmer of hope occurs on  "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" as it taps on the movement head-on diving into the thoughts of a woman who intends to stand up to male dominance and does so valiantly.

My favorite Joni Mitchell song ever is "Edith & The Kingpin" and its nestled here, somewhat forgotten (even though the varying likes of George Michael, Herbie Hancock, and Tina Turner have all covered the song). Mitchell's talent for storytelling has her this time detailing a sad tale about the two lonesome losers --- a meek, unconventional woman who ends up in the charming clutches of a well-lauded, but empty gangster and how their affair is 'romantic and snowblind'. What I love most about this song is how Mitchell writes her lyrics with wit and imagery ("the wires in the walls are humming") and how the song can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. For a bibliophile like me, these twists make the song almost novella like. I swear if Mitchell wasn't a singer, she'd make one hell of a novelist due to her composing such rich allegorical tracks like "Edith & The Kingpin".

Continuing the endless search for independence theme, the beautiful "The Boho Dance" with it's soft touches of flugelhorn has Mitchell sketching out her journey at once adoring the jet-setting art crowd, but becoming disenchanted with the scene as a whole upon discovery that she simply can't be herself in it (been there, experienced that, preach it Joni). "The Jungle Line" proves to be one of Mitchell's most challenging songs, as it incorporates an elastic rhythm embossed with metaphors about nightlife and substance abuse, along with pockets of tribal percussion courtesy of the Royal Drummers of the Burundi from East Africa. Long before Sting and Paul Simon incorporated African influence into their music in the 80's, here was Mitchell, dipping a toe in and testing the waters early on.

Okay, by now you're thinking, "My gosh, this album is a complete downer. Failed marriages, drugs, females being run by men, confusion of self, isolation issues....Joni, girl, eat some chocolate doughnuts and drink a sangria and get over it!". Yes, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is a downer. A big bold one. Disillusion after disillusion. It makes me want to lock myself up in my room, cuddle a pillow, and not get into a relationship ever again. So why do I love it? Why do I keep coming back? Why do I consider it one of my all-time favorite albums, and one of the few that when I first heard it, I had to step away from it to fully digest all that it embodied?

There are just some albums that need years, even decades for it to sink in on the black wax, to fully mature, cultivate and thrive, and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, unfortunately (or not?), was locked in the fate of keeping its back to the wall. Like the flower it is, it peeled itself from the wall, blooming delicately as the years progressed on, finally finding its niche as an album that's contents proved to be replicated, attempted, and appreciated in decades time. It's ability to grow with a person is what makes it such an bewitching listen. This isn't an album that freezes in frame of a time past (well, for me at least). It's an album that will shape and shift with the listener as we continue on the arduous and stumbling search into making sense of life.

Also Mitchell just paints these stories, as dejected as they may be, beautifully. It's hard not to fall in love with the warm Jazz-Pop notes, the touches of flugelhorns, and Mitchell's artful lyrics. Every time I return to it, it hugs with familiarity, playing into my perpetual inner duel of optimism and loneliness, yet also has a mystique-like quality. There is always something new to discover with each play, some emotion that I probably wasn't feeling a previous day but am feeling at present listen that will leap out and have me nodding my head in "I know...I get it now." 

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, may not have been perfect for 1975, but for me, in 2013 its rich soulful foliage flourishes, beams down warm, making it by far one of Joni Mitchell's finest hours.

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