Review Summary: Keep your gut reactions hid.
If you would’ve asked me just last year, maybe even earlier than that, which Joni Mitchell album I liked best, I probably would have said Hissing of Summer Lawns. And I bet I would’ve said that confidently, too. Released about 10 years into Mitchell’s career, Hissing was a big departure and a risky step forward for the traditionally acoustic artist. In my eyes, it was Mitchell at her most adventurous, a breath of fresh air in the desolate pop music landscape that was the 1970s. An album that rose from initial critical backlash to near-universal praise from all fronts.
Again, this was maybe about a year ago I thought like this.
As time has gone by, and I’ve re-evaluated some of the popular music that came before my time, I’ve begun to question whether Hissing of Summer Lawns actually was the obtuse art pop masterpiece that I had always eulogized it as in my head. Is it really all that special of an album? And after much deliberation, I’ve decided that I may have been wrong about how important Hissing of Summer Lawns was. Or at least, how ‘different’ it was.
The more I listen to some of the less “hit-friendly” pop that was coming out of the 70s, the more I realized just how natural a direction this album was in 1975. The landscape had changed in such a short time, and artists from the last decade were struggling to find their footing again. It happens nearly every decade: out with the old, in with the new. And in the 1970s, the ‘new’ meant going ‘electric.’ It seems almost quaint looking back through today’s technological lens. But it was novel for the time, and Mitchell knew it; synthesizers, electric organs, and even some early sampling techniques were all utilized for the record.
But for how poorly Hissing of Summer Lawns was received at the time, nothing about it really seems too out of step for the time. It retains Mitchell’s unique songwriting skills, her voice is as quality as it had ever been, and there was enough acoustic guitar in there to tide over Joni Mitchell purists (if such a group existed back then, I wouldn’t know). In fact, the album is restrained with its use of ‘electric’ sounds. Sure, there’s the progressive pop “Jungle Line,” with its intense percussion and synth, but even then, it’s not too far out there for the time. Beneath all of these new layers Mitchell surrounded herself with, there was no question that it was her.
I suppose Hissing of Summer Lawns is a unique album, in a sense. Of the many artists that tried to change with the times, Mitchell's attempt seems to only grow stronger each passing year. So no, Hissing of Summer Lawns isn’t the radical statement I once thought it was. However, it will endure as a solid experiment in Joni Mitchell’s vast catalog, held together by some tight lyricism and a solid folk/jazz pop backing. It may not be my favorite Joni Mitchell album anymore, but I can see it finding itself back in my top spot sooner rather than later. It tends to have that effect, you know?