Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm

Joni Mitchell

1988: Geffen 24172-2

  1. My Secret Place
  2. Number One
  3. Lakota
  4. The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms)
  5. Dancin’ Clown
  6. Cool Water
  7. The Beat of Black Wings
  8. Snakes and Ladders
  9. The Reoccurring Dream
  10. A Bird That Whistles

This was probably my first introduction to Joni Mitchell’s 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, I’ve 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 can’t get through a single sentence without using the word “like” as a crutch….)

Right, so, uh, “My Secret Place”—the 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*): Gabriel’s voice trades off so evenly with Mitchell’s that at times I’m still not sure if there’s some sleight-of-hand going on in the mix,* and that’s 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 it’s a nice, deep classic which follows in the legacy of “Empty, Try Another” among others. It’s 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 doesn’t, whereas Willie Nelson’s presence in “Cool Water” not only works and infuses the track with an unexpected depth, it also augments the song with more than the song’s own roots to great effect.

I actually don’t have much to say about the rest of the album, as it’s 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 it’s 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. It’s a sufficiently deep song that’s 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, I’ve 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.)