Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it wasn't unusual that the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns was hailed, for the most part, as a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. But while this release and the subsequent, and her subsequent and less commercially successful Hejira, showed Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs - broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures - the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from the majority of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her now double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. The primary emphasis, musically, is towards jazz modernism, with a number of songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and to let the notes resonate and face as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics - while her side heR, Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and guitarist John Guerin, do their best to add definition.
The lyrics, following suit, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images of ungrounded gravitas references, and ineffective epiphanies that should have been edited with a blue pencil. It has the feeling of someone who has had too much coffee attempting to simulate that half-awake/half dreaming aura that is the expected hallmark element of surrealism as even the theoretically naive would understand the term. The lyrics , their elliptical manner and quizzical vagueness, sound deliberate , a tone that is contrived instead of one that arose organically, from whatever complex of stimuli happens to engage the muse for the better.
While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend latest with the excuse that a poet may express his or her self in any way they see fit, one still has to question the worth of any effort to dissect Don Juan's Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though any number of matters that Mitchell chose ] to deal with may have value to her audience - spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into middle ages - she doesn't supply anything resembling hooks, catchphrases or accessible points of reference for them to latch onto. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not.
The paradox in Mitchell's stance is that she has thrown craft well outside the window while trying to measure up to "Art" in the upper case. One may step anywhere they want on the path (or paths) they've chosen to walk, but those of us who instinctively cringe when melodic structure --and the attending ingenuity of musical and lyrical phrase joining together to create that both stimulates one's critical faculties and rarefied pleasure centers resting outside the intellect-- all but vanish in short order, only to be replaced with a workable but altogether wholesale variation on thrift store modernism, we needn't be expected to sing or praises beyond her belief that her work will survive the scorn heaped on. She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty, which is a state of mind that takes hold of many of public personalities who think they know it all and who conceive themselves as no longer being bound by conformity. In her own way, Mitchell has joined the ranks of John Lennon, Yes and other bright talents who've OD'd on their own importance.