[Review] Joni Mitchell: The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975)

The followup to Court left no doubt as to who the reigning queen of music was.

Kronomyth 8.0: A striped blouse in a clearing by Bazille.

You’ll have to spend a little more time with The Hissing of Summer Lawns than Court and Spark to appreciate it. You won’t mind. At this point, arguing that Joni Mitchell isn’t the greatest musical artist of her day feels futile. Bob Dylan might have been the better poet, Steely Dan more musical, but neither combined the two as well as Joni did.

The album is both a return to the mix of jazz/folk/rock advanced on her last studio album and brave adventures into new sounds, notably The Jungle Line. It’s also one of the few albums from Joni that intersects with other artists. You can, for example, draw a line between Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow and Paul Simon’s Graceland. Or Shadows and Light and Todd Rundgren. Or Harry’s House/Centerpiece and The Mothers (“Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”). Or any number of Steely Dan albums, which now shared many of the same players (Jeff Baxter, Larry Carlton, Wilton Felder, Victor Feldman).

The album opens with In France They Kiss on Main Street, a bald attempt to re-create the success of “Help Me” that is, nonetheless, brilliant. What follows is a blast from the future: primitive and modern synthesized into something you’ve never heard before. The song is in the inspiration for the album cover and will stay with you for years to come. I would have loved for Joni to explore this style more, but butterflies will go where they will. Edith and the Kingpin is nearly perfect in word and music, Don’t Interrupt the Sorry is an inspired portrait of an alcoholic. Shades of Scarlett Conquering is the Gone with the Wind character come to life.

If “The Jungle Line” is the album’s most shocking track, The Boho Dance is its most powerful. Here, Joni Mitchell sums up her place in the world as well as anywhere, noting that she has no place at all but sits between the rich and the bohemian, an outsider uncomfortable in her own clothes. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is beautiful jazz/rock that melts in your mind and serves as a setup for the next track, “Harry’s House/Centerpiece,” the story of a soon-to-be-emancipated wife written in two sections. Sweet Bird recalls the dry pieces of old, and the album ends with the mostly a capella “Shadows and Light.”

The references to painting are more pronounced on this album, replacing in one sense the use of colors on Blue, but it has become clear that Mitchell is that rare creature, like William Blake, equally at home in the worlds of images and words (and, of course, music). The centuries produce few of these, and they are to be treasured. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is itself a small treasure, part of a string of albums, Blue through Hejira, that stands as one of the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century.

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Original elpee version

A1. In France They Kiss on Main Street (3:17)
A2. The Jungle Line (4:20)
A3. Edith and the Kingpin (3:35)
A4. Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow (4:04)
A5. Shades of Scarlett Conquering (4:57)
B1. The Hissing of Summer Lawns (John Guerin/Joni Mitchell) (3:00)
B2. The Boho Dance (3:56)
B3. Harry’s House/Centerpiece (“Centerpiece” by Johnny Mandel/Jon Hendricks) (6:52)
B4. Sweet Bird (4:10)
B5. Shadows and Light (4:15)

All songs written by Joni Mitchell unless noted.

The Players

Joni Mitchell (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, Moog, keyboards, ARP-Farsifa), Max Bennett (bass), John Guerin (drums, arrangement, Moog) with Jeff Baxter (electric guitar on A1), Larry Carlton (electric guitar), David Crosby (background voices on A1), Victor Feldman (electric piano, vibes, congas, keyboard, percussion), Wilton Felder (bass), Chuck Findley (horn, trumpet, flugle horn), Robben Ford (electric guitar, dobro, guitar), Graham Nash (background voices on A1), Dale Oehler (string arrangement on A5), Joe Sample (electric piano on A3, keyboards on B3), Bud Shank (sax, flute, bass flute), James Taylor (background voices on A1, guitar on B1), Warrior drums of Burundi (drums and voices on A2). Engineered by Henry Lewy; mixed by Henry Lewy and Joni Mitchell. Produced by Joni Mitchell and Henry Lewy.

The Pictures

Cover illustration and package design by Joni Mitchell. Art direction by Glen Christensen. Photography by Norman Seeff.

The Plastic

Released on elpee, quadraphonic elpee, cassette and quadraphonic 8-track in November 1975* in Canada (Asylum, 7ES-1051), the US (Asylum, 7E/EQ/8Q-1051), the UK (SYLA/TCSYLA-8763), Germany (Asylum, K 53 018), Italy (Asylum, W 53018) and Japan (Asylum, P-10087Y) with gatefold cover; reached #14 on the UK charts and #4 on the US charts (RIAA-certified gold record). (First referenced in 11/15/18 issue of Billboard.)

  1. Re-issued on cassette in the 1980s in the UK (Asylum, K.453018) and Germany (453 018).
  2. Re-issued on compact disc in 1987 in Germany (Asylum, 253 018).
  3. Re-issued on compact disc in 1991 in Germany (Asylum, 60332-2).
  4. Re-issued on compact disc in 1998 in Japan (Asylum, AMCY-3160).

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