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40 Years On: Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns Revisited
David Bennun , November 23rd, 2015 12:40

Joni Mitchell risked everything; she had a career of "unparalleled audacity" says David Bennun when reassessing The Hissing Of Summer Lawns some 40 years later

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Nobody has ever made an album like this.

By which I do not mean, nobody other than Joni Mitchell, although that is also true. Rather that, between the times I listen to it, it ceases to be what it is when I play it - as if it were one of those quantum particles whose state is defined only when observed. I can never remember exactly what it’s like, between those plays. I have a sense of it. I think I know it. But I hear it again and realise I don’t, until it’s in the room with me.

In that, and many other ways, it’s qualitatively different from the folk-pop records which made Mitchell’s name. Most of those are brilliant, so far the best thing of their kind that it is apt they are also the progenitors of most things of their kind. Their shape is clear and their substance certain. Like figurative art, which is what they are, they are still there when you turn away. It is on this album that Mitchell becomes truly and sublimely elusive - a kind of protean fire sprite flickering like hungry light through her own music. Nobody has ever made an album like this; although plenty must have tried and no doubt some of them have done remarkable yet different things in the attempt.

It doesn’t really matter whether The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is Mitchell’s best album. What does matter is that anyone who thrills to, say, Blue, as well they might, may find this even more thrilling if they’ve yet to hear it. Mitchell is unusual among major artists in that little of her very finest work is among her most famous, with the possible exception of this album’s predecessor, Court And Spark. Hejira, the magnificent record that followed it, is stranger, more exotic, more thickly draped in mysteries. There are those - I’ve met one or two - who most adore Mingus, her daring 1979 collaboration with the great double bassist. Then again, “daring” is tautological when cited in tandem with Joni Mitchell, whose career is one of unparalleled audacity. People think Bowie, or Prince, were daring. People are right. But Mitchell risked everything, and lost much of it, and a fuck she did not give. No great star has ever been so fearless in the face of their waning stardom. There’s no Let’s Dance in her catalogue, no Batman soundtrack. (Nothing wrong with those records, either; the point is only they were constructed with at least one eye on the main chance.) In pop, history is written not by the winners, but about them. If history had it right, history would put the Joni Mitchell of the mid-to-late 70s not merely close to the pinnacle, where her earlier folkie incarnation resides, but right atop it with the very best of them.

Everything Mitchell did between 1974 and 1979 is sui generis other than within her own catalogue; certainly so in the wider pop canon. The common thread to it is jazz, and I am unsure what to make of the fact Mitchell is regarded in retrospect not as a jazz artist, despite her greatest music drawing upon it heavily, but almost invariably as a folk artist. I see three possible explanations. One is that so original was her use of jazz in the singer-songwriter mode, she wasn’t recognised principally as an exponent of the form (rather as, say, Massive Attack weren’t acknowledged as a rap band.) The second: simply, because her “hits” are found almost entirely among her earlier, folkier songs. The third: so limited are the roles for women in jazz - vocalist, and that’s usually it; the exceptions are just that: exceptional - that the notion of a female auteur redefining its possibilities just doesn’t compute. I suspect there’s some truth to all three. (I wrote about this particular question at greater length here for Intelligent Life.)

When I do play The Hissing Of Summer Lawns - I had it on just now, as you’d expect, but I switched it off to write because I can no more hear it and find words of my own than I can taste chicory through a double espresso - I am, ever and again, softly dazzled by its very existence. If I’d never heard another Joni Mitchell record, I’d find it remarkable enough as a piece in itself. In the context of her oeuvre, it’s less an astonishing leap, more a dizzy ascent along the same path that Court And Spark had set her upon. It was on that album that she began her transformation from diarist/memoirist (the part her acolytes always found easiest to copy, although few would ever attain anything close to her insight and lucidity) to a composer of imaginative short fiction or portraiture in song. On The Hissing Of Summer Lawns she perfected it. Whatever callowness had lingered in her from those deceptive days as a wide-eyed hippie ingenue - one always gifted with hawk-like observation and glowing talent - was gone. No longer were her peers navel-gazing strummers of guitars. (Mitchell somehow saw the human soul in that navel, where many of her contemporaries found fluff.) They were the first rank of musicians, novelists, film-makers, and visual artists (among whose number she also belonged) who were taking their scalpels to a wearied America.

That’s her picture on the cover; a foreshortened coast-to-coast landscape in which the New York skyline looms behind the Beverley Hills suburbs where Mitchell herself lived - her house is on the right - while in the verdant foreground naked tribesmen carry a trapped giant snake. Hissing, lawns... geddit? It took me a while. As in, years. It looks to me now like a depiction of America’s id; the manifest portrayal of everything primal that hovers half-glimpsed behind the (also hissing) sprinklers - and of the way the civilised life of its moment curtailed all that had wildness in it. What David Lynch would later render as extravagantly gothic, Mitchell picked out with a truer sense of its peril. The fiends are not violence, depravity and abuse; they are ennui, banality, claustrophobia, despondency, the erosion of joy and beauty - and their quarry is female. Women in song who for once are not merely the objects or proponents of ardour. Although “merely” is the wrong word. Love is pop music’s great subject; but it need not be pop music’s only subject. The newness of what Mitchell did is underscored by the thought that it would be unusual even forty years on.

But first, there is the joy and beauty of ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’. Which is not about France, but about Main Street, Everyville. France is a dream, an ideal: Liberté, vivacité, électricité. ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’ is an overture of sorts, an exuberant affirmation of everything in life and youth that stands to be lost in time and boondocks mundanity: “Under neon signs/A girl was in bloom/And a woman was fading/In a suburban room.” Right there is a precis of the album to follow, which will radiate out from that centre in iridescent waves. Rock & roll is the battle hymn in a “War of Independence” a fight waged by the young against those forces that determine their destiny is to fade in the suburbs, against elders who have “been broken in churches and schools/And molded to middle-class circumstances.” It is hard not to quote the entire lyric, so sweetly and exultantly does it conduct those livewire moments when everything crackles with possibility. The song itself echoes its own refrain, rolling, rolling, rock n’ rolling from its first rousing strum to its final tiny whoop. It is the calling card of fulfilled genius.

‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’ stands as a stepping stone between what Mitchell had been and what she was about to become. It would not have been notably out of place on Court And Spark. But ‘The Jungle Line’, with its thudding tribal drums and beat poetry incantations, certainly would. Now, there are, let’s say, issues with Mitchell and race. Not just the sleeve of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977), which one might generously explain away as theatricality in art, but her subsequent, jaw-dropping remarks about it. And to invoke the jungle, and Rousseau - whether he of the noble savages, or he of the Primitivist art; it proves to be the latter - on “Safaris to the heart of all that Jazz” in Harlem is, in today’s wince-inducing word, problematic. And yet. So evocative is its sorcery, so piercing of history’s sweep the lyric, that if one cares to justify it, one could say it is descriptive of the products of an attitude rather than an example of that attitude. And if one doesn’t, one may simply acknowledge both its uncomfortable stereotyping and its singular redolence and atmosphere, and accept that chipping away at the clay feet of great art for the purpose of bringing it down altogether is a kind of spiritual vandalism - as if the entire past must be slung out for failing to come up to code in the present.

The safari seems a preliminary excursion, but it isn’t. It travels by an unexpected route to the same set of views, which is female life seen both from the inside and the exterior. 'The Jungle Line’'s barmaid is sister under the skin to Edith, she of the languid, lovely 'Edith And The Kingpin'. The Kingpin is a small-time Mr Big, a local potentate, who has fixed upon Edith as his bedmate, the latest in a line of women who “grow old too soon”, raddled by cocaine and the terrors of their incumbency. Chosen, Edith has no choice. Taken, she must take what she is given. She is woman as vassal, no more free in her American town than her equivalent falling under the eye of a feudal village’s liege lord. No more free than the lavishly kept wife in the title track - who might be Edith, years on, prisoner of the man she’s captured - pacing the barbed wire perimeter of her ranch house like the caged animal she is. Or is she? Is it that liberty is impossible, or that she imprisons herself? “He gave her his darkness to regret/And good reason to quit him... Still she stays with a love of some kind/It’s the lady’s choice."

Here she is again, or again, her subcutaneous sister, in ‘Harry’s House - Centerpiece’, yet another of the post-Impressionist wonders Mitchell daubs onto the album in loose brushstrokes that coalesce with magical precision into perfect pictures; and every last one of those pictures has its shadows and it has some source of light. Here is Mad Men, three decades early. Harry in the city, surrounded by glamour and sexual opportunity; wifey in the suburbs, surrounded by dead air. And with astounding artfulness, Mitchell places at the heart of her own song a cover version, the swing-jazz standard, ‘Centerpiece’, in which the singer’s “pretty baby” is lauded as, quite literally, a piece of furniture around which his household is to be assembled. In the gap between 1958, the year of the song’s composition, when its subject was evidently intended to feel delight at such a prospect, and 1975, Mitchell unpicks how it feels to become a trophy. Edith, Harry’s wife, the “lady” of the summer lawn: all are prized possessions who learn the hard way just what it is to be acquired, when you think it’s you who’s making the catch.

Mitchell never makes things simple. Nor needlessly complex. The music on these songs flows like water running downhill, switching this way or that not for the sake of it but because it must. Its course is unpredictable and ineluctable; once followed, it could not, you sense , have gone any other way. The same is true of the feelings and images it carries along. They are as plain and as complicated as the lives they invoke. So there is no easy dichotomy whereby women at liberty are happier than women trapped by men, or by themselves. Freedom has its own hazards. “Since I was seventeen/I’ve had no one over me,” snarls the narrator of ‘Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow’, the scene of a fierce and terse battle of the sexes in which ancient, Abrahamic patterns of domineering and resistance play out via the mores of the day. Religion clutches at everything. ‘Out of the fire like Catholic saints/Comes Scarlett and her deep complaint.” Woman as something wounded. Woman as something bloody and unbowed. Woman as something red, aflame and dangerous. This is ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’. A lambent piano ballad, invoking Gone With The Wind and depicting a creature of unblinking will: ‘It is not easy to be brave/Walking around in so much need... Cast iron and frail/With her impossibly gentle hands/and her blood-red fingernails.’ Mitchell unfolds the femme fatale from the inside, in the most delicate and ingenious reverse origami, and makes you quiver at the truth of it.

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns closes even more anomalously than it opens, with ‘Shadows And Light’, a breathtaking choral and synth meditation; a Gregorian chant made so modern that, after forty years and countless hommages, it still sounds as if it is beaming in on a mainline from the future, in a steady rush of ideas and sound. Again, Mitchell pulls in and juxtaposes images, this time creating a gorgeously tempered aural collage. It is a song about meaning, about the futility of the binary, about the way meaning itself hides in shades and creases. It is among the most extraordinary four minutes in the history of popular music. You can take it as an epilogue for the album; a commentary on all that’s gone before; a guide to how to hear it. It certainly works that way. It also stands entirely alone. As, amid her hordes of disciples and imitators, does Joni Mitchell - and never in more enrapturing fashion than on this subtle marvel of an album.

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Nov 23, 2015 3:27pm

Nice article. Thanks. I haven't listened to "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" in a while; I should do something about that.

You wrote, "There’s no Let’s Dance in her catalogue, no Batman soundtrack." You don't think her early '80s return to pop, "Wild Things Run Fast", qualifies, or her guest-star-laden 1988 album "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm"? Neither of them set the charts on fire, but they were certainly far more accessible than any of her late '70s albums. "Chalk Mark" seems particularly like a comeback attempt to me; it fits in pretty well with the '80s art-pop crowd (Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, etc.).

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Nov 23, 2015 4:16pm

Um, Charles Mingus was a great jazz double bassist, not a "great jazz pianist."

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David Bennun
Nov 23, 2015 4:58pm

In reply to :

'Um, Charles Mingus was a great jazz double bassist, not a "great jazz pianist."'

Oops, quite right - rather than correct that one, might as well let the record show my carelessness. Sorry.

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Nov 23, 2015 6:29pm

In reply to David Bennun:

Not quite incorrect: Mingus did play piano, and pretty good at that!

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Dante LeVally
Nov 23, 2015 7:03pm

Wonderful review of an amazing album of music. 'Hissing' is indeed a masterpiece. Thank you for taking the time to write and share this article. Joni Mitchell music is the music of my life.

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Nov 23, 2015 8:27pm

I pulled it out for a 30 year old friend last week, a musically sophisticated one. He was simply blown away but its genius.

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Nov 23, 2015 8:28pm

In reply to :

I meant "by its genius". LOL

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Nov 23, 2015 11:45pm

'Hissing' to me is the sound of the sprinklers on the lawns by the Hollywood mansions.

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Nov 23, 2015 11:54pm

Thanks for this article. "Hissing" is often overlooked, but in my opinion it's Mitchell's best record and one of the best albums ever. Mitchell opened up new perspectives for women to write song lyrics and I'm happy that you acknowledge this fact in your text.

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Eric Martin
Nov 24, 2015 12:23am

This is a great piece of writing about a once-in-a-lifetime album. I am disappointed for the lack of mention of "The Boho Dance", which contain some of Joni's best lyrics (that bit about the priest with a pornographic watch" is shocking and yet utterly perfect) and probably her most polarizing (how can a white artist cover this song and leave the line about "negro affectations" in tact... "Problematic" to say the least). I must listen to this tonight...

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Patrick Michael
Nov 24, 2015 12:58am

Picking my favorite album by Joni, like many I suspect, usually changes from week to week. But if you held a gun to my head, it's "Hissing ". "Shades of Scarlett Conquering", may be the best song ever written that nobody knows. "Sweet Bird", which you did not mention, has haunted me these forty years.

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Nov 24, 2015 2:32am

agree with all the comments. a truely great album, often overlooked. it gets scant mention in the many video docs on her life and work. edith... never fails to bring tears.

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Martin Bridgeman
Nov 24, 2015 1:59pm

I remember hearing "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" in the Dandelion Market in Dublin and being transfixed. Having loved tracks from "Court And Spark" and "Blue" for different reasons I understood, in that magical moment, what a true artist was truly about. Not looking back, embracing the moment, speaking from the heart. I didn't have the money to buy the album that day but I made it my business to hear the full album, which I have on original vinyl and CD...I treasure the album and the clicks on it's vinyl copy...

And no, I never saw U2 play there, more's the pity ;-)

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Ginny Lynch
Nov 24, 2015 6:28pm

Thank you, David Bennun. You delivered a composition that is worthy of Joni Mitchell! I immediately got drawn in when you said that you listen to this album differently than other albums, and you totally caught me when you continued "until it’s in the room with me." You are right... the life force on this album is so intense that it loses something in the distance of memory, and it returns in all its boldness when you turn it back on. I will be reading your words over and over again while I continue to gain a better understanding of this album.

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Mary Beth
Nov 24, 2015 8:30pm

I never tire of this album, or of any of Joni's albums for that matter. But this one is such a large part of my life it's hard for me to separate myself from it. After the recent attacks in Paris, I found myself driving in my car singing "In France, they kiss on Main Street. Amour, mama, not cheap display..." Thank you for this review and for taking me back 40 years to my late friend Gary's off-campus living room and the non-stop listening that made "Hissing" a part of me forever.

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Rowan Carstairs
Nov 24, 2015 11:29pm

I still remember vividly borrowing a copy this week the album was released and listening to it in rapture.

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Nov 25, 2015 3:10pm

Mr, Bennun,

That is a very fine essay about this complex and important work. I particularly appreciate how you draw connections between the apparently disparate songs and show that there is a theme of female empowerment/disempowerment running through them. Yet even that duality is nuanced as Shadows and Light points out; the truth is not in the binary oppositions. I think, as another reader also commented, that The Boho Dance deserved its own paragraph, containing as it does some of the most vivid poetry of Joni's stunning career.

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Nov 28, 2015 4:12pm

A great article and a pleasure to read for a wonderful album and artist, likewise the Economist Magazine piece.

Ornette Coleman suffered a comparable fate. On his death, his early and, yes, truly groundbreaking work was praised to the heavens. Little mention was made, however, of everything that followed - the Skies of America symphony, the development of harmolodics, the doubling of Prime Time, the exploration of other musics. The result was that Ornette's achievement was limited to the world of jazz, whereas in truth it was much greater.

I'd love to read an appraisal/exploration of Ornette post 1965 that put his musical achievement in proper perspective. How about it David Bennun or The Quietus?

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Justin R
Dec 2, 2015 6:16am

A fantastic write-up of this truly underrated masterpiece. It's such a difficult album to sum up in words; it contains so many layers of meaning. Just when I think I have it all figured out, time passes and new layers are revealed. Your article connected some dots and explored some angles that hadn't occurred to me (or perhaps hadn't yet), while reaffirming others that had. I still believe it would be impossible to fully explain the magic of this album...despite language being an essential ingredient in its magic, many of its layers are between the lines, and almost feel too primal or intuitive to fully translate into linguistic form. This piece is the closest I've encountered to anyone capturing the core of its essence (or the essence that I take from it, at least) through words. Thank you for sharing it!

Here's a video I edited for the title track from Hissing, if interested, using footage Joni herself filmed on Super 8mm. While supplementary visuals elements are certainly not needed to enhance the experience of this album, I felt that this footage provided a complimentary visual backdrop for the song, remaining abstract enough that it does not compete with the song's narrative. Or at least that's how I see it, but I welcome feedback in all shades & shadows & light. :)

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Dec 6, 2015 5:44am

I loved this when it first came out...still do! Awesome work of art!

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Dec 16, 2015 2:52am

I always thought I was the only one that thought this album was brilliant. Thank you for the company.
Can't believe it's been forty years.

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chris jefferies
Jan 10, 2016 12:39am

Great review of a sadly overlooked piece of work. Thanks.

It is interesting that you start off with "as if it were one of those quantum particles whose state is defined only when observed".

My favorite on this album is Sweet Bird where Mitchell seems to capture the state of humanity in one song. It starts with dreamlike chords that occasionally hesitate and draw us into the scene with a reference to the borderline, the place of "in between". She then goes into the human conditions, vanity, power, beauty and the loss inherent in their ideals. She seeds the idea of time and change, draws us back to another line, the horizon line, something that's always unattainable. Finally she tells us that all we can count on are "guesses at most", "guesses based on what each set of time and change is touching" and it fades into a chant repeating this line...

In that last line I think she's singing about the human desire to absolutely "know" and describing that quest within the underlying realm of quantum mechanics where time and change give us "guesses at most"...

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Feb 29, 2016 8:07pm

Great article. I'm a big Joni Mitchell fan, but strangely enough haven't heard this album. You've made me very curious now...

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Mar 28, 2016 6:27pm

Erudite review that conveys the emotion as well as the intelligence of the work. Loved this since it came out. Played it today it never ages

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Aug 14, 2016 11:03pm

I recently watched Susan Lacey's 2003 American Masters "Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind" and came away a little puzzled. Not once was "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" mentioned nor was any track from the album played. I wonder if Miss Lacey had done a program on the Beatles if she would've treated "Sgt. Pepper" exactly the same way for in my mind "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" is Joni Mitchell's "Sgt. Pepper".

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Richard Freeman
Sep 9, 2016 6:38am

There is more soul, beauty and artistry in the opening of "Edith And The Kingpin" than in the entire catalog of many contemporary musicians.

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Feb 25, 2017 10:29pm

The key to the album is anima rising. Not animus. The album is a cubist aural painting and dissection of aspects of different female situations from teenage longing, the awakening of the animal urges, femme fatales, coke queens and suburban wives in model homes where the sun beats down and the watered lawns hiss in a haze of heat and frustration.

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Jul 18, 2017 8:25pm

I have yet to read a review of this album that mentions what I feel is its most important song--"Sweet Bird." The whole album essentially builds to it and then "Shadows and Light" caps it. The album is almost loosely chronological in its song choice--teenagers kissing in cars, young women with ideas and sexual power, women who have become distracted and trapped, and then, on Sweet Bird, women realizing that they're on the downhill slide toward death, mocked by the grand forces that don't care about our vanities and our little dramas. I surely can't be the only person who thinks it's criminal to talk about this album without that song.

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