on 2 March 2006
In Don Juan's we find Joni has reached the climax of her journey combining the outstanding wordsmith-ery of folk, and the improvisational soulfulness of jazz. This album, understandably, is not anywhere near as accessable as Joni's earlier work, but like the best art, it is something to be unlocked, to be discovered, and one's efforts reap massive rewards!
For me, Joni has never written better lyrics than on Don Juan's, take for example the song 'Talk to me', decribed in an earlier review as 'banal', it is a song of pleading, from Joni to a taciturn lover:
Is your silence that golden?
Are you comfortable in it?
Here Joni takes the phrase 'silence is golden', and develops it wonderfully, with a continuing reference to 'gold':
Are you gagged by your ribbons,
Are you really exclusive or just miserly?
You spend every sentence as if it were marked currency,
Come and spend some on me;
Shut me up and talk to me!
Here is poetry, poetry not matched by Dylan, or Cohen, and originality above and beyond her peers. Other lines, in the symphonic 'Paprika Plains', are worthy of being quoted alongside the work of the greatest of poets:
When I was three feet tall
And wide eyed open to it all
The rain retreats, Like troops
To fall on other fields and streets
Joni is undoubtedly at the height of her lyrical ability here. And as if that weren’t enough, she sets her poetry to music, and what music! I know of no other popular musician who has the architectural vision of Mitchell when constructing her songs and albums. Take the first track, Overture/Cotton Avenue – a chorus of differently tuned guitars slowly strum and pick their way through Joni’s beautiful harmonies, lightly building up to what turns out to be a good old boogie. We then travel through Talk to Me, which, however odd to the ear, is unarguably original, and has a wonderful narrative, then onwards to Jericho, a very moving musical sigh, and through to Paprika Plains. To some, Paprika Plains is an inexcusable waste of vinyl and time, though, since the first time I lay back on a sunny afternoon and played it, I have been in love with this sweeping orchestral track. The album is very much concerned with the idea of dreams, which could be thought of as its ‘theme’, and in Paprika Plains Joni quite explicitly lays out a 16 minute reverie about her life, complete with un-sung images in the form of lyrics, printed on the album cover. When after the long, improvised, orchestral interlude, the rhythm returns and Joni starts singing again, it is with a relieving sense of waking up. Otis and Marleena follows with a palpable change of mood, and a memorable melody, and continues through to The Tenth World, and Dreamland, both, experimental tracks, oozing with style, and continuing the ‘dream’ theme. The title track is next, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, with obvious similarities to the songs from Hejira. This track has had many criticisms levelled at it, including its similarities to Hejira, and that its theme, the battle between head (eagle) and heart (snake) is tiresomely overused. This is to speactacularly miss the point! That a song should have a theme that is repeatedly repeated is, well, quite normal actually, and Mitchell is able to inject fresh life into it each time it appears. Then there are the wonderful lines:
Here in good-old-god-save-america,
The home of the brave and the free,
We are all hopelessly oppressed cowards
Of some duality
Of restless multiplicity
Which move seamlessly into a jaggedly harmonic quoting of the first line of the american national anthem, “Oh say can you see”, before continuing with the song. This and many other things make Joni stand out as an artist. Dylan may have 40 albums and 500 songs, but the 20 or so albums that Joni has written have the advantage of the thought that has gone into them. Next is Off Night Backstreet, a song brimming with bitterness, from the dissonant chorused harmonies, brash instrumentation, and razor sharp lyrics:
I can feel your fingers
Feeling my face
There are some lines you put there
And some you erase
Joni rounds off the album with a delightful cautionary ballad, hearkening back, not only to the folk era, but into the distant past of wandering minstrels. This track is by far the easiest to listen too, it has a sweet melody, and soft singing from Joni, and some of her most assured guitar work. In addition, it is, musically, connected to the opening track. In it she continues her lyrical tour-de-force:
Come all you fair and tender school girls
Be careful now--when you court young men
They are like the stars
On a summer morning
They sparkle up the night
And they're gone again
Astounding stuff. But it is an album that requires patience, an attribute in short supply in today’s musical climate. It doesn’t surprise me that many don’t rate this very highly. Fortunately for them there are myriads of popular musicians stuck in the five bar blues idiom of unoriginality and lyrical regurgitation. For the rest of us, we have Joni and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter…