Angels and Devils

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter Joni Mitchell Elektra-Asylum Records, 1977.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger

Traveling through all these highs and lows

I heard there was no sickness

And no toil or danger

Just mercy and plenty

Where peaceful waters flow

SO BEGINS "The Silky Veils of Ardor," the last song on Joni Mitchell's newest album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. Throughout her career, Mitchell has been traveling--a hitcher, a wanderer, a tourist, a pilgrim with no destination. Her albums are not so much a chronicle of her travels as a portrait of the traveler. And the traveler is slowly, sadly, desperately slipping away.

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a demanding double album, for it makes few concessions to the exigencies of commercial appeal. It refuses to be tossed into one of the catch-all bins that are labeled folk, jazz or rock. The kind of freedom Mitchell enjoys on this album is rare, and refreshing, but it is also a perilous freedom: Leave the clearly marked paths of standard meter and concise rhyme schemes, and walk the untrammeled, impressionistic woods. But take care you don't get lost. While some of the songs on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter pass through those woods skillfully and effectively, Mitchell does in fact get lost on many of the cuts.

Musically the album is creative and rewarding. Like Hejira, her last album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter continues to move away from the tight jazz-rock style of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Several of the extraordinary musicians who played on Hejira contribute to the new album, particularly bass player Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report and drummer John Guerin of the L.A. Express.

There is far more variety in the new album than in Hejira. Mitchell and Pastorius play together with remarkable sensitivity. Where Mitchell's guitar is driving and harsh, as it is on "Talk To Me," Pastorius plays mellifluous, moving bass lines. Where a song calls for a solid, almost rock rhythm section, like "Off Night Backstreet," Pastorius and Guerin come through with imagination as well as force.

On her earlier albums, Mitchell occasionally explored extended instrumental sections. "Paprika Plains," a 16-minute song that occupies the entire second side of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, is her longest and most exhausting instrumental effort to date. This song is a reverie, set in a late-night doper's fog, recalling the pain and sweetness of childhood and varied impressionistic scenes of her youth. Mitchell comes close to the warm chords she used in earlier pieces, like the instrumental break in "Down To You," (Court and Spark) but there is a constant tension beneath the surface, a dissonance that colors the music as the ugly drug haze shades her reverie. The instrumental has a definite form, with recurring themes and a refrain, but it is not rigidly structured. This passage makes for poor background music. As a tone poem, however, it powerfully strikes the listener.

Although the instrumentation succeeds in Mitchell's newer, freer style, many of the songs on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter do not. The general rule in any style of musical composition seems to be that the less apparent the structure of a work, the more underlying framework and discipline it requires if it is to be interesting, or even approachable. Admittedly, this rule is not universal. But in Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, like Hejira before it, Mitchell is reckless. The album lacks discipline, and suffers for it.

MITCHELL DEALS very closely with her own personality on the new album, as she has on most of her previous efforts. In the past, however, she often created a fictional character, a situation that served as a vehicle for emotional scene-setting. In songs like "Shades of Scarlett" (The Hissing of Summer Lawns) or "Ludwig's Theme" (For the Roses), she created intriguing characters, whom she depicted in strength as well as weakness, and in relation to the world around them.

The Joni of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, however, rarely steps outside herself. When she writes about her emotions, she fails to place them in any sort of perspective, or to fill in a persona around them. Thus, many of the new songs are portraits--not of a neurotic person--but of a neurosis. And Joni Mitchell's neuroses are not zany-funny, common, or even unique. In fact, they are not even all that interesting. Her songs are like a certain kind of friend--a friend of whom you are genuinely fond--but a friend who is forever wrapped up in her problems, painfully occupied with keeping the pain away. The problems and pains are real, and you do care, but there is a limit to your toleration. Mitchell, increasingly, exceeds that limit.

In "Talk To Me," for example, she spews forth her urgent need in a frenetic stream of self-debasing words: