When Joni Mitchell released her double live album Shadows And Light in 1980, it signaled the end of her contract with Asylum Records. She would spend the next decade with a new record label (Geffen Records) and a new collaborator (bass player Larry Klein, who would also become her co-producer and husband). This wasn’t a critically or commercially successful period of her career, although she did court chart success with 1980’s production techniques, drum programming and guest appearances by numerous pop and rock stars. In fact, it’s these of-their-time qualities that initially turned me off to these albums (at least the first few), so much so that if I had started writing this post after one listen I wouldn’t have had many positive things to say. Of course I’m glad I stuck with them, because after listening to each of these four albums numerous times, I found a lot to like. If not as much as the brilliant studio albums that preceded them, then that’s mostly because the production still dates much of this music, whereas the majority of her earlier recordings still sound timeless.
The first album of this new era, Wild Things Run Fast (1982), is a quirky beast. It’s got a lot of the jazz stylings of the last few albums, but there’s also a rock edge to some of the material, possibly due to the inclusion of Toto guitar whiz Steve Lukather. This sound is most evident on “Wild Things Run Fast.” It’s like nothing else in her catalog, and it sounds like she was trying to write a radio hit (think Pat Benatar or Hall & Oates from this era). That’s not a criticism, as I really enjoy this song. Her rockier side also appears on the Lieber & Stoller song “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” I prefer the jazzier, slightly syncopated sections to the straight-ahead chorus, but her quirky arrangement really won me over. That’s Lionel Richie guesting on “You Dream Flat Tires,” a cool, propulsive Toto-esque rock song which, ironically, doesn’t have Mr. Lukather on guitar (he’s replaced by the equally versatile Michael Landau).
Album opener “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” is really the key song here. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” is first introduced in the piano intro, and its melody & lyrics are repeated throughout the song. She also briefly references the Goffin/King classic “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” I love the subtle jazzy arrangement with fretless bass, which ties this to material from her last few albums. Until I read the lyrics, I didn’t realize she was once again referring to the daughter she gave up for adoption years earlier, which she previously addressed on “Little Green” (from Blue). “Ladies’ Man” is a soulful track with a nice slinky groove that has an early-80s R&B sound (think Luther Vandross). I love the “fire and ice” backing vocals on the very cool “Be Cool.” The shortest song, “Underneath The Streetlight,” is also one of my favorites. She blends a midtempo jazzy groove with a straightforward rocker that’s upbeat (both lyrically and vocally). The remainder of the album is also solid, with no clunkers or aimless tunes. I wouldn’t rank this among my four or five favorite Joni albums, but it’s not far off.
With Dog Eat Dog (1985), Joni really embraced the overproduced sound that was permeating the airwaves at the time, with electronic drums and Fairlight synths. This is not surprising, as it was co-produced by Thomas Dolby (“She Blinded Me With Science”). I like a lot of these songs, but my enjoyment is slightly dulled by the sound of the album, which is ironic because I like a lot of music from this era. It’s just strange for an artist like Joni, who seems a little out of her element. That’s the unmistakable voice of Michael McDonald on album opener “Good Friends,” a duet seemingly about a secret love affair that has grown complicated (“walk on eggshells and analyze”). The lyrics to “The Three Great Stimulants” are puzzling to me. They’re poetic but abstract, as she reveals that the “three great stimulants of the exhausted ones” are “artifice, brutality and innocence.” Is it about a bad relationship? Anti-war? Anti-capitalism? At 6+ minutes, I still couldn’t crack this song, especially since it’s not terribly melodic. Still, I mention it here because I think she has something important to say…I just can’t figure out what it is. Any input would be appreciated.
One of the best songs is “Dog Eat Dog,” with Don Henley and James Taylor on backing vocals. Here she’s railing against modern society (as she does on the earlier, less memorable “Fiction”), by referencing the “snakebite evangelists, racketeers and big wig financiers” (that last one is the melodic hook). Too bad about the gated snare & airy synths, but this was 1985 after all. “Impossible Dreamer” is another winner, a light-as-air, vaguely jazzy pop song with a catchy melody in the title. At first I thought she was singing about someone else, but I think she sees her younger self as the “impossible dreamer” and wishes she were still that way. I also really enjoyed “Ethiopia,” its slow, repetitive beat highlighting the lyrics, where she’s appalled by the TV footage of suffering in Africa.
[Joni Mitchell - "Dog Eat Dog"]
The prettiest song is “Lucky Girl,” which I’m assuming she wrote for husband Larry Klein. She’s looking back at past failed romances and feels lucky now to be with him. It’s nice to hear Wayne Shorter on tenor sax for a change, instead of soprano sax. One other notable track is “Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another),” a brief interlude of a song where Joni “plays” a cigarette machine, and features some cool slapped bass. It captures the feeling of a smoker needing a cigarette when the machine is empty, and you can hear the frustration as she repeats “try another.” I can’t say I love this album, but once I got past the production, there’s enough here to make me revisit it again in the future. However, I don’t see this as an essential Joni record.
That 80s sound is still prevalent on Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988), but it’s not as distracting. The most notable element of this album is its guest stars. Joni duets with Peter Gabriel on “My Secret Place,” a beautiful and tender love song with a midtempo pop melody. Joni’s allowing herself into her lover’s life, physically and emotionally, and her vulnerability is very powerful. Willie Nelson adds his inimitable vocals to “Cool Water,” an old song with updated lyrics by Joni. It’s almost meditative, and the hook is in the slow refrain of “cool…clear…water.” The strangest pairing on this album, though, comes during “Dancin’ Clown.” It’s a fun, lively track that stands out from everything else here, and features both Billy Idol and Tom Petty on co-lead vocals. Stranger songs became hits during the ‘80s, so this must have been her attempt at one. At first I found this song to be quite weird, but for some strange reason it grew on me.
Joni has a defiant & proud sound in her voice during “Lakota,” sung from the perspective of the Lakota Native American tribe, who were taken advantage of by white settlers. Probably the most powerful track is “The Beat Of Black Wings,” an anti-war song about a wounded soldier & how he’s affected by combat. The title refers to the sound of helicopter blades. Does anyone know what she’s singing before the word “angel”? It sounds like “tired angel” or “darling angel,” but I can’t tell, and it’s the most melodic part of the song. “Snakes And Ladders,” with Don Henley on guest vocals, is another memorable tune. It starts off upbeat and happy about a couple in love, but ends with lyrics about the relationship deteriorating. I like how she uses the board game of the title as a metaphor for relationships (“get to the top and slide back down”).
“The Reoccurring Dream” wouldn’t work in any other setting, with the production and keyboard sound laying the foundation, and various spoken words (like TV commercials in a dream state) nearly hidden in the mix. The album ends with the pastoral “A Bird That Whistles,” Joni singing in falsetto, with just acoustic guitar, sparse bass and sax. I’m still not sure how I feel about this album. On one hand, it’s sonically superior to its predecessor, but the guest vocalists sometimes make it a little too offbeat. I certainly enjoyed it a lot more after 4 or 5 listens, which means it will probably continue to grow on me over the years, but it’s not nearly at the level of her best work.
It took a few spins, but I finally started to “get” Night Ride Home (1991). Those ‘80s sounds are gone, replaced by a quiet, early-‘90s studio sheen that initially hid some incredibly powerful music. It begins with “Night Ride Home,” a blissful tune of mostly acoustic guitar and light percussion (and cricket sounds throughout). This is possibly the slowest road song ever recorded, but it’s fantastic, about Joni riding in the car with the man she loves on the 4th of July. It’s followed by the soft & gentle “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free),” which asks “who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?” I found myself singing along with the hook (“who you gonna get?”), and although I’m not completely sure what the song is about (what’s with the references to ecstasy, misery, apathy & tragedy?), I found it mesmerizing.
“Come In From The Cold” is the longest song (at about 7:30) and it’s also one of the best. It’s got a simple verse-chorus structure repeated seven times, and she sings about wanting to connect with others, to make up for past mistakes. Light percussion drives the midtempo “Nothing Can Be Done,” with strong vocal support from David Baerwald, who I knew from his 1986 album Boomtown with the duo David + David. Her vocals here remind me of Martha Davis (of The Motels). It’s a simple, melancholy song, and I really like the line “my heart is like a smoking gun, and nothing can be done.” Another powerful song is “The Windfall (Everything For Nothing),” where Joni is defiant against her ex during a divorce (“I’m not gonna be the jackpot at the end of your perjured rainbow”).
[Joni Mitchell - "Nothing Can Be Done"]
She’s positively giddy during “The Only Joy In Town,” admiring her “Botticelli black boy.” It’s followed by “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac,” a wonderfully blissful tune which fondly looks back on a high school boyfriend. That’s Brenda Russell on backing vocals, playing a similar role to the one Chaka Khan played on “Dreamland” (from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter). The album ends with “Two Grey Rooms,” a piano and string-laden ballad about Joni hiding out in a small apartment just so she can watch someone walk by on the sidewalk below every day (although she doesn’t specify who that is). It’s a nice, quiet ending, with her voice going very low as the songs closes out. The overall soft tone of the album initially belied the power of the songs, but this one is by far my favorite of her Geffen years. It deserves to be mentioned among her very best work, probably just below my all-time favorites.
This batch of albums is a perfect example of why I’m thrilled to be revisiting complete catalogs and writing about them. It’s easy to listen to an artist’s best work over & over again, but sometimes it can be a chore to work your way through the less substantial material (or at least the albums with that reputation). Following Joni’s career from helium-voiced folkie to sensitive singer-songwriter to jazz-infused poet and beyond, I’m no longer surprised by any of the left turns her music has taken. Her Geffen years are a slightly odd but ultimately rewarding collection of music that couldn’t have been made at any other time or by any artist other than Joni Mitchell.