Having been a fan of Blue, Court and Spark Wild Things Run Fast and Dog Eat Dog, I began to go backwards in Joni Mitchell’s catalog after college. It wouldn’t be long before I discovered one of my favorite if not the favorite Joni Mitchel album. The Hissing of Summer Lawns comes from a time that I usually associate with ugly things. The mid ’70s was not particularly a great period for music or things in general.
Aside from a few Norman Leer TV shows, there’s not much from the era that I gravitate to now. Musically, my impression is clouded by a haze sappy adult contemporary pop, with a few exceptions. Jazz and jazz fusion in particular had become popular with Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and The Weather Report mixing jazz with contemporary rock. For a time it was the the cool music of the day.
As one of the leading folk artist of the era, Joni Mitchell was never afraid to stretch boundaries. She had already started flirting with jazz on her 1974 release Court and Spark. Her next studio album The Hissing of Summer Lawns was an all-out merging of folk, jazz and dense African rhythms. The loosely constructed songs were free spirited in nature with occasional sharp observations peppered with humor. Despite all that was going on musically the album perfectly captures a lazy summer day with moments of structure alternating with improvising.
Songs like “Don’t Interrupt This Sorrow” embodied the spirit of Post-Impressionism, that being expressive style within a structure with its stream of consciousness lyrics. The songs were both funny and scalding as in the title track about the materialism that the American dream inspired.
The fluid nature of the album comes from a mixture of Western and African instruments. There was even the rare and expensive at the time Moog synthesizer in surreal funk of “The Jungle Line”. That song with its tribal percussion may have inspired the subline eroticism of the album art that features a pen and ink drawing of nearly naked Africans carrying a huge snake with the Manhattan skyline in the background. Mitchell’s house (highlighted in blue) was even featured in the row of suburban styled houses that lined the edge of civilization.
Despite the experimental nature of the album, there were many well established artist who made guest appearances as backing vocalist or musicians or both. James Taylor (guitar/backup), Gram Nash (harmonica/backup) and David Crosby (backup vocals) were just a few of the voices enlisted, although their parts were not always recognizable.
Despite to all-star cast in the background The Hissing of Summer Lawns was not the big commercial hit that Court and Spark was. Its only single “In France They Kiss On Main Street” barely made the top 100, but critics praised the album and held it up as her best to date.
Its an easy album to like because its simplistic analog approach is timeless. Mitchell’s quick wit set to poetry is at its best here and will likely be more appreciated in time due to the dearth of witty female singer songwriters in today’s marketplace.