Rewind: The Hissing Of Joni Mitchell's Summer Lawns

With summer officially in practice the enchantment of Joni Mitchell's The Hissing Of Summer Lawns seems ripe for the recall. For me, Hissing marks the apex of Mitchell's career, as well as a bold detour into musical experimentation that further pushed the artistic envelope.

Dreamily it floats warm, with introspection that magnifies Mitchell's storytelling bravado. It's not as pensive (and hellishly depressing) as Blue, commercially sound as Court & Spark, or as majestic as Hejira, but Hissing is complex, stylish, adventurous, and more or less is the underrated classic of Mitchell's album cannon. At the time of its release it was considered to be Mitchell's first "flop", as Rolling Stone (during a time when their opinion did mean everything) labeled it as one of the worst releases of 1975.


You know the saying: "Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone has one." Well, it's true. So my 'bellybutton' response is that The Hissing Of Summer Lawns isn't the worst of 1975, nor is it the worst in Mitchell's catalog. Sure, maybe I'm bias because this is the first Joni Mitchell album I listened to, but truly, I find that Hissing shows Mitchell not only at her sophisticated and wordsmith best, but also at her most experimental as she hopscotches from one genre to another, maturing and reinventing her sound as it plays on.

Her flirtation with Jazz is in full swing ("Harry's House/Centerpiece") as her decision to incorporate members of the Jazz fusion group, The Crusaders help to pad her rhythm section, allowing the album to mold into a fuller, polished, and less acoustic sound. She even takes a risk to utilize new technical advances like the use of abstract overdubs (the eerie "Shadows & Light") and Moog machines ("The Jungle Line"). Vocally, Mitchell has always practiced soulful phonetics, but the expansion of this now laces her in lieu with likes of Roberta Flack, Minnie Riperton, and Phoebe Snow all while spinning allegories fit for novelization.

Hissing innocently begins with "In France They Kiss On The Main Street". Accompanied by 2/3 of the Crosby, Stills and Nash outfit (David Crosby and Graham Nash) and James Taylor, Mitchell muses about the freedom of youthfulness, the early buddings of romance, sex, and the discovery to practicing a non-conforming lifestyle. As it strolls along on a jubilant chorus and spirited guitars, there is an air of past tense, a longing for what was. So don't let the 'rock n' rolling' feel-good opener lead you to believe that all of Hissing follows a similar plush and warm affair. Musically, it does, but Hissing's thematic nature veers jarringly after the fact as it swings back and forth between cautionary tales of disappointment and isolation, and strives for hollow independence.

Hissing debuted around the height of the women's liberation movement, and this slice of social readjustment is threaded throughout as Mitchell takes the sideline approach, becoming an observer to document a cast of characters that include kept women, bored June Cleaver housewives, wandering independents and romantic resistors, stitching them without a thread of judgement.

On the haunting title track, as dejected keyboard chimes and plush guitar strums coat the lyrics, Mitchell plays watchful neighbor to a woman who is pretty much bored out of her skull as she lives not for herself, but for her wealthy husband who keeps her confided and bejeweled, a fate she herself has unfortunately fashioned. In contrast, the string laden "Shades Of Scarlet Conquering" hints at the one-woman-show crusade of its Gone With The Wind namesake, and how even being an independent woman has it's hollow victories. Mitchell's tone when shouting towards the end: "a woman must have everything" is a mix of defiant unwavering yet uncertain angst. A glimmer of hope occurs on  "Don't Interrupt The Sorrow" as it taps on the movement head-on diving into the thoughts of a woman who intends to stand up to male dominance and does so valiantly, as she feeds off the defiant unconscious mind of Anima, of biblical figurines Eve and Virgin Mary, shattering through myths and confiding stereotypes ("Truth goes up in vapors / The steeples lean / Winds of change patriarchs / Snug in your bible belt dreams / God goes up the chimney / Like childhood Santa Claus / The good slaves love the good book / A rebel loves a cause").

"Edith & The Kingpin" is nestled here, and even though the varying likes of George Michael, Herbie Hancock, and Tina Turner have all covered the song over the years, it's a somewhat forgotten beauty, a pathos of voyeurism that's richly detailed and rendered. Mitchell's talent for storytelling has her detailing a sad tale about two lonesome losers, one a meek, somewhat plain woman who ends up in the charming clutches of a Lothario, whose affair can only be described as 'romantic and snow-blind'. So much affection I have for this song and its turns of phrases that are intelligently and wittily drawn ("Sophomore jive / From victims of typewriters / The band sounds like typewriters) that allow you to step into the vivid narrative Mitchell has captured ("Edith in the ring / The passed-over girls are conferring / The man with the diamond ring is purring / All claws for now withdrawn"). The song is almost novella-esque, interpretation is up to listener, but if Mitchell wasn't a musician, she'd make a clever novelist as her composing such rich allegorical tracks like "Edith & The Kingpin" read poetic.

Continuing to search for peace in independence, the beautiful "The Boho Dance" with it's soft touches of flugelhorn has Mitchell on the outside again, looking towards the center of the jet-setting art crowd she once adored and associated with, but at current, feels disenchanted over ("It's just that some steps outside the Boho dance / Have a fascination for me / A camera pans the cocktail hour Behind a blind of potted palms"), realizing that she is simply sculpting herself into someone she's unfamiliar with, conforming when the whole initial point was to thwart the norm (been there, experienced that, preach it Joni) Once again, skill is in Mitchell's prose as you can just imagine a buzz of excitement and chatter swirling about an idle and conflicted Mitchell ("Don't you get sensitive on me / 'Cause I know you're just too proud / You couldn't step outside the Boho dance now / Even if good fortune allowed") .

 "The Jungle Line" proves to be one of Mitchell's most challenging songs, as it incorporates an elastic rhythm embossed with metaphors about nightlife and substance abuse, along with pockets of tribal percussion courtesy of the Royal Drummers of the Burundi from East Africa. Long before Sting and Paul Simon incorporated African influence into their music in the 80's, here was Mitchell, dipping a toe in and testing the waters early on.

By now you're thinking that Mitchell presents a real downer culture in The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. Failed marriages, conflicting states of being, women being run by men, isolation issues --- Joni, girl, eat some chocolate doughnuts and drink a sangria and climb off of it...! Yes, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is a downer. A big bold one. Disillusion after disillusion. It makes me want to lock myself up in my room, cuddle a pillow, and not get into a relationship ever again. So why do I love it? Why do I keep coming back? Why do I consider it one of my all-time favorite albums, and one of the few that when I first heard it, I had to step away from it to fully digest all that it embodied?

There are just some albums that need years, even decades for it to sink in on the black wax, to fully mature, cultivate and thrive, and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, unfortunately (or not?), was locked in the fate of keeping its back to the wall. Like the flower it is, it peeled itself from the wall, blooming delicately as the years progressed on, finally finding its niche as an album that's contents proved to be replicated, attempted, and appreciated in decades time. It's ability to grow with a person is what makes it such an bewitching listen. This isn't an album that freezes in frame of a time past. It's an album that will shape and shift with the listener as we continue on the arduous and stumbling search into making sense of life, making sense of self.

Mitchell just paints these stories, as dejected as they may be, beautifully. It's hard not to fall in love with the warm Jazz-Pop notes, the soft touches of flugelhorns and Fender Rhodes, and Mitchell's artful lyrics. Every time I return to it, it hugs with familiarity, playing into my perpetual inner duel of optimism and loneliness, yet also has a mystique-like quality. There is always something new to discover with each play, some emotion that I probably wasn't feeling a previous day but am feeling at present listen that will leap out and have me nodding my head in "I know...I get it now." 

The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, may not have been perfect in 1975, but for me, 40 years later, Mitchell's finest hour is rich and soulful foliage that flourishes and feels warm to the touch.

+ This is a revised version of a post that was reviewed in 2013 on the original Audio Diva blog.
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