Joni Mitchell continued her musical evolution with the release of The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975, just a year after Court and Spark. This album furthered her push into jazz-inflected pop and world rhythms, miles away from the simplicity of ‘Both Sides Now.’
On the brash, aggressive ‘The Jungle Line,’ Mitchell is credited with the first-ever sample, using a recording of African drummers as the bed for her impressionistic lyrics. That percussive track stands apart from the rest of the album, which has a smooth R&B quality. Some of these songs would feel at home on a Steely Dan album.
These aren’t songs you find yourself humming, but the album is a great listen. Sonically, it’s way ahead of its time, and Mitchell backs off from the vocal tics that bother me so on Court and Spark.
I was taken aback by the album’s treatment of race. References to “cannibals of shuck and jive” and “Negro affectations” coupled with the album art of jet-black “natives” carrying a snake feel uncomfortable coming from a 32-year-old white woman.
A little research revealed that Mitchell has had a complicated relationship with these issues, including blackface and use of the n-word, along with a desire to celebrate and explore Black musical genres. I’ll touch on those explorations as I get to future albums.
Eight years and seven albums into her career, it’s remarkable how much ground Mitchell had covered. I think I’ve already heard her most celebrated work and I’m not even halfway through her catalog. I can’t wait to hear the directions she took next.
He put her in a ranch house on a hill
She could see the valley barbecues
From her window sill
See the blue pools in the squinting sun
Hear the hissing of summer lawns
He put up a barbed wire fence
To keep out the unknown
And on every metal thorn
Just a little blood of his own
She patrols that fence of his
To a latin drum
And the hissing of summer lawns
Wonder makes it easy
With a joyful mask
Tube’s gone, darkness, darkness, darkness
No color no contrast
A diamond dog
Carrying a cup and a cane
Looking through a double glass
Looking at too much pride and too much shame
There’s a black fly buzzing
There’s a heat wave burning in her master’s voice
Hissing summer lawns
He gave her his darkness to regret
And good reason to quit him
He gave her a roomful of Chippendale
That nobody sits in
Still she stays with a love of some kind
It’s the lady’s choice
The hissing of summer lawns