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:
Please just come and talk to me
Any old theme you choose
Just come talk to me
Mr. Mystery talk to me
You could talk like a fool--I'd listen
You could talk like a sage
Anyway the best of my mind
All goes down on the strings and the page...
Shut me up and talk to me
I'm always talking!
Please talk to me.
Not only will this barrage estrange the character from the people around her, it is unpleasant to listen to, even with Pastorius's sweet bass line behind it.
YET Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is more than a series of uncontrolled, desperate self-portraits. Mitchell does impose some structure on the album, so that it forms a more or less cohesive whole. She is forever the wayfaring stranger of "The Silky Veils of Ardor," moving on, searching for something intangible. She longs to make life click joyously into place. She sees through other people's unsuccessful efforts to "get through this passion play." In "Otis and Marlena," for example, Mitchell depicts a couple visiting Miami Beach, down from somewhere in the north:
They've come for fun and sun
While Muslims stick up Washington...
Otis empties out the trunk
On the steps of that celebrated dump
Sleazing by the sea
Bow down to her royal travesty...
Always the grand parades of cellulite
Jiggling to her golden pools
Through flock and cupid colonnades
They jiggle into surgery
Hopefully beneath the blade
They dream of golden beauty...
Otis and Marlena vacation in Miami, looking for pleasure and relaxation. But it's a lie: their attempt is hollow.
Mitchell portrays a variety of doomed efforts. In "Jericho," she sings of the birth of a love affair, hoping that this time she will be able to "keep the good feelings alive," where she failed in the past. In another song, "Cotton Avenue," she presents a young woman, preparing to go out dancing in the city on a warm summer night. She never says Cotton Avenue is fun--in fact, she describes it as a crowded, coldly sexual scene, where the men are out "hustling," sizing up the women. She goes there out of compulsion, out of the same need that runs through the album: Find something to hold onto, something real, because what I'm doing now isn't making it.
Throughout her career, Mitchell has blurred all the ways of enjoying life--love, lust, escape, delight--into the word "dreaming." In the title cut from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, Mitchell is still looking around, still trying to lose herself in dreams, in Hell. The song has a dark feel to it, almost predatory, with a driving beat punctuated by sinister, percussive bass notes. Mitchell sings that the serpent in her cannot be denied. But neither can the antithetical pull for clarity and simplicity, for the innocent child within her.
On the final cut, "The Silky Veils of Ardor," Mitchell sets aside Hell and dreaming and escape. In this simple, sad song, Mitchell plays unaccompanied acoustic guitar, and sings of the long, lonely ride home. She sings as if she plans to make it:
I wish I had the wings
Of Noah's pretty little white dove
I would fly this raging river
To reach the one I love
But I have no wings
And the water is so wide
We'll have to row a little harder
It's just in dreams we fly
In my dreams we fly!
It's not clear that the road Mitchell is traveling leads to home. In fact, for all the analytical self-portraits Mitchell paints, it is not clear where she is going. Too many of the songs on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter lack clarity and perspective, and too many simply fail to be interesting. Not all of the songs fail, however, and the musicianship is consistently creative and imaginative. The end product is a creditable, if somewhat unsatisfying, effort.