Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm
1988: Geffen 24172-2
This was probably my first introduction to Joni Mitchells music, improbable and perhaps undesirable as that may seem. What I remember grabbing me in the first place was the video for My Secret Place, with Joni and Peter Gabriel embodying a fascinatingly tranquil teeter-totter relationship atop some evocatively scenic video footage of landscapes. I think that led me to check out the album and thence to discover the wonders therein. (Oh dear, Ive just used both thence and therein in the same sentence, thus [and now thus! AAAIGHHH!] revealing myself to be an alien among a society that cant get through a single sentence without using the word like as a crutch .)
Right, so, uh, My Secret Placethe video and all that. Well, I found the album track to be even more interesting than the video (which I saw only once, at the time, by the way*): Gabriels voice trades off so evenly with Mitchells that at times Im still not sure if theres some sleight-of-hand going on in the mix,* and thats a lovely bonus aspect to what is in any case a thoughtful and restless musical story which benefits from the presence of these two quite masterful artists in the first place. The storyline of the video escapes me now, but in the song its quite clear and also touching, the born and raised in New York City girl still getting used to Colorado after being compelled to go there by her beloved/partner. The interplay of imagery, back and forth between geographical/cultural locales and personal perspectives, imbues this track with an engrossing sense of compulsion and contentment constantly shifting back and forth very gently. Its lovely.
Of the other tracks on this album, The Reoccurring Dream is the one that grabs me most: when I first heard it I was intrigued and impressed but not particularly dazzled, the studio artistry of the day being up to this level years beforehand, but in retrospect as a Joni Mitchell piece its a nice, deep classic which follows in the legacy of Empty, Try Another among others. Its an engaging work of musical and sociological art that just gets better with repeated listenings.
The guest vocal tracks are a curious mix of success levels: the unlikely-then-and-unlikely-now collaboration of Tom Petty and Billy Idol, on Dancing Clown, kinda works and kinda doesnt, whereas Willie Nelsons presence in Cool Water not only works and infuses the track with an unexpected depth, it also augments the song with more than the songs own roots to great effect.
I actually dont have much to say about the rest of the album, as its pretty much self-explanatory and requires no further comment (except maybe regarding the ancestry of A Bird That Whistles). The Tea Leaf Prophecy for example gently mixes past and present with a hint of both nostalgia and judgemental sociology, but in the end its just what it is, no drastic diatribe nor disposable pop fluff; would you expect less of Joni Mitchell? More, perhaps, but less? Of course not. Its a sufficiently deep song thats almost a bittersweet bedtime story and drifts off in a somewhat sad way despite the absence of an actual defeat.
* Two followups, in 2014, to this commentary, which I think I posted in 2005: first, Ive recently re-watched the video and confirmed my intial impressions, plus added some gentle new aspects to them, and second, I have since writing this learned from an interview with Mitchell that she did shift from one singer to another (and sometimes right back again) even on a single sung note. So yay, me, for having caught that! But first of all, yay, Joni, for being so artistic. (Also much thanks to Peter Gabriel for snooping in on her recording sessions and getting involved, back then.)
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.