The Hissing of Summer Lawns

Joni Mitchell

1975: Asylum 1051-2

  1. In France They Kiss on Main Street
  2. The Jungle Line
  3. Edith and the Kingpin
  4. Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow
  5. Shades of Scarlett Conquering
  6. The Hissing of Summer Lawns
  7. The Boho Dance
  8. Harry’s House—Centerpiece
  9. Sweet Bird
  10. Shadows and Light

Jesus what an extraordinary album. But then the sequence of Court and Spark, this, and Hejira is an inherently amazing body of work in itself, so it’s hard for me to compare them and raise one up over another (I concede that Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, while fascinating overall and superb in moments, doesn’t quite make the cut for inclusion in that string of pearls).

In fact I think only “The Boho Dance” strikes me as being a weak track, even though it’s a storyteller in its own right…it just doesn’t match the astonishing depth and craft of all the others on the album. I hesitate to identify any one track as being the best or even my favorite, but “Harry’s House” is awfully damned exquisite to sing, with its storyboard of vignettes so deliciously and viciously laid out in order to portray an untimately imploding domestic conflict from the macro down to the micro level. I suppose the title track mines similar territory—conflicted marriage, that is—albeit with different complications and knife-twists; I found it engaging, enigmatic, and liltingly biting all at once even before I’d read that it was about José Feliciano and Susan Omillian (eventually his wife), which information fleshed out the scenario more literally but wasn’t necessary for enjoyment of the track.

It’s ironically appropriate that it took me a long time to really get into “Sweet Bird,” considering that its lyric notes bittersweetly the passage of time and (perhaps) the inherent shortsightedness of youth. That the song doesn’t have an evident drive and just presents itself in little soaring and dropping patches was probably why I didn’t see into it with any major discernment, but boy is there some depth in the reflective lamentation of those lines. That Mitchell seems to somewhat conflate a seemingly innocent sun-tanning with a compression of aging makes for some deft and precipitous contemplation on mortality and what’s to be done with what you get of it. Now the song makes me cry, more often than not.

Mitchell’s command of language and her facility for making it say the several things she wants to express at the same time are amply demonstrated throughout this album, which is one reason it takes several hearings to get a solid impression of it—there’s just so many layers of expression and art happening at any given moment, even including pauses between musical phrases. It’s truly amazing to me, still, even 30 or so years since I first played it through.