Dog Eat Dog

Joni Mitchell

1985: Geffen GEFD-24074

  1. Good Friends
  2. Fiction
  3. The Three Great Stimulants
  4. Tax Free
  5. Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another)
  6. Dog Eat Dog
  7. Shiny Toys
  8. Ethiopia
  9. Impossible Dreamer
  10. Lucky Girl

I don’t recall when it was that this album came into my musical consciousness, but I’m willing to bet that it was in 1990 or shortly thereafter because I know I first heard “Smokin’ (Empty, Try Another)” on Seattle’s short-lived magical radio station KEZX around then (which was eviscerated in autumn of 1990 to become a golem). Hearing that track ensured that, in conjuction with my previous encounters with Mitchell’s music (first conscious brush with it being probably Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, believe it or not, but then Court and Spark around 1987, then Blue and For the Roses a couple of years later while housesitting, and eventually Hejira just before I heard this track), I would need to go back and find out what she’d been up to all that time and since. That meant learning of this album but also the complicated terrain of the albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus and, less complicated but still in there, Wild Things Run Fast (which is, to date, my least favorite of Mitchell’s albums after the initial soprano-relentless early ones; decades later, I still only have a cassette transfer of it in my library, for occasional consultation but never with expectation of enjoyment).

For starters, I didn’t care for the opening track until I saw its video and found how to read its sound and lyric as something engaging and fun (albeit *quite* NYC-centric). The track’s sound presented my ear with a combination I initially found off-putting…but as I look back at it from a distance of 30 or so years I can see/hear Mitchell’s voice and vocal style continuing to develop *but* the instrumentation and production around it changing drastically from album to album. The journey from Hejira to Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is one of sudden stylistic musical jolts which appeared while pop and rock music were undergoing much more intense and prolific evolution that made Mitchell’s albums in that stretch almost footnotes instead of the landmarks that some of her earlier albums had been (within their realm, which grew so much smaller as music exploded beyond anything known and synthesizers revolutionized production opportunities/costs). Amidst that landscape, Mitchell was trying new approaches, or reacting to new influences, or just doing her own thing, but the results were a mixed bag indeed. But the voice is in there, throughout, like a river still growing and finding new courses that suit it, regardless of the vehicle’s trappings.

The album does suffer from some insuffrably bad tracks, of which “Ethiopia” and “Lucky Girl” are not only examples but wincingly close out the album almost back-to-back (“Impossible Dreamer” sadly serves as the limp lettuce comprising the paltrycontents of that lamentable sandwich). “Fiction” nearly gets put in this bin but does have some redeeming traits both in lyrics and recording, but I wouldn’t bet money on its ability to stand alone as a song removed from this recording.

That it’s an album dated both in and by its content and production quality is hard to avoid noting, but, as I said regarding the opening track, that also can help the listener do a little interpreting/filtering of contexts (both then and now) so as to, say, render Shakespeare intelligible to the modern ear. (Not that this album’s lyrics are of Shakespearean quality; the only place they shine, to my ear anyway, is “Dog Eat Dog” in all its acerbic crafted social commentary on the grim cultural times we were indeed amidst at the time.)