Review #258: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell

Karla Clifton
3 min readApr 5, 2022

#258: The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell

I am mad at Joe Rogan. I don’t even have an opinion on the whole debacle, I’m just mad at him, because he’s the reason I can’t listen to Joni (or Neil, or David, or Stephen, or Graham, or India…) Oh well. I checked the CD out from the library, because I am 107 years old.

Joni and I have a long, checkered history. The first time I reviewed Blue (#3) I had a pretty snotty reaction, but then I listened to it again and realized that Joni Mitchell is a poet and I am an idiot.

This was released just four short years after Blue, but has an entirely different feel. Something interesting I learned while researching was that Joni didn’t just write and perform all her albums, but produced most of them, including Blue and Hissing. Just look at all these! God, I feel inadequate.

This is notable because the production on Hissing is fascinating and innovative. For example, “The Jungle Line” is credited as the first commercial song that used sampling. The meaty drums in the background are the Drummers of Burundi, and she pairs them with a freaking Moog. It’s terrifying, it’s sexy, it’s exciting! And that’s not the only cool production trick: the closer “Shadows and Light” has a chorus of layered vocals above the occasional futuristic BWAH noise. It sounds years ahead of its time, and reminded me of FKA Twigs’ “Thousand Eyes.”

There’s this great amalgamation of jazz and folk-rock going on here. In a rare moment of insight, the RS blurb mentions that the opener, “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” is bidding “farewell to the rock & roll era in a blaze of freewheeling, jazzy joy.” She lets you know exactly what she’s doing by pitting an electric guitar and an electric piano against each other. It really is the perfect first song.

So that’s the music. But of course, the lyrics (as always with Joni) were what made me fall in love with this one. She paints so many pictures of ordinary women living ordinary lives, but she paints them with luminescent poetry. The title track, “The Hissing of Summer Lawns,” is one of several about dissatisfied wives, but with thoughtful lyrics that don’t make demons out of anybody. “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” is emotionally similar to Blue, ending with her exasperatedly repeating that A woman must have everything. I feel that. “Harry’s House / Centerpiece” is an interesting medley, where Joni twists the tale of another unhappy wife into a jazz standard. I can’t figure out why she paired them together, but maybe it has something to do with paper wives and paper kids.

Lines like that are why I had to stop myself from overquoting this album. So many good turns of phrase. “The Boho Dance” is a tongue-in-cheek song about selling out that makes it clear that Joni believes there is no such thing, mocking us all with incredible lines like Like a priest with a pornographic watch. “Sweet Bird” almost missed me, then I caught that it was about a sweet bird of time and change, laughing at us from above.

So. Hissing is no Blue. That’s a given. But just like the RS blurb says, this isn’t so much a triumph of songwriting, but a triumph of production. Blue is a personal statement. Hissing is both broader and narrower, weirder and more commercial, more pretentious and … more pretentious. I loved it. Joni, do what you have to do, but please, someday, I beg you, return to Spotify.

Other Highlights: “Edith and the Kingpin” has a nonlinear, dreamy melody that makes you wonder how she comes up with this stuff. “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” is another female empowerment song built on an acoustic riff. It’s a female empowerment buffet!

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