She was enjoying her greatest commercial success to date, but for many consumers, this is where Joni seemed to go off the rails. With 35 years of hindsight, it seems the only beef people can have with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is the use of synthesizers, which admittedly, stick out like two sore thumbs. Except for that, it’s a clear progression from the contemporary jazz she’d gotten such accolades for on Court And Spark, right down to yet another Annie Ross cover.
Something else to consider, as acknowledged in the liner notes, is that her words had become more poetic than lyrical, sometimes completely ignoring rhyme schemes for a pattern, like her guitar tunings, that make sense to only her. That’s not to say she stopped writing catchy songs. “In France They Kiss On Main Street” kicks it off with a straight jazz-rock backing and a few old boyfriends singing backup. “The Jungle Line” likely turned a lot of people off, driven by pounding African drums and dominated by a Moog synthesizer. (At the time such an instrument was still groundbreaking; these days it brings to mind the occasional video game.) More conventional sounds return for “Edith And The Kingpin”, an enigmatic film noir that gives a hint of her developing sound. “Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow” seems more abstract until you realize that it actually rhymes. A portrait of a Southern post-feminist is painted by piano and strings on “Shades Of Scarlet Conquering”.
Similarly, the title song was viewed by some as an indictment of a woman choosing to be symbolically imprisoned by an affluent husband, but as we’ve learned about suburbia, there seems to be a lot more going on than we can see. Another side of this theme is “The Boho Dance”, a somewhat guarded look (back) at compromises people make for their success. What sounds like a passing car horn ushers in “Harry’s House”, which juxtaposes the increasingly separate activities of a married couple with a memory illustrated by “Centerpiece”, a jazz standard shoehorned into the middle of the arrangement. “Sweet Bird” returns to the sound of For The Roses with slowly strummed yet slightly jittery guitars colored by piano. “Shadows And Light” is a daring closer, sung by layered voices and accompanied by a primitive string synthesizer.
The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is a little challenging, so while the public may not have been quick to embrace it, it does get namechecked by some of music’s snobbier figures, like Prince and Elvis Costello. Maybe the cover art didn’t help; the gatefold shows a bikini-clad Joni floating in a swimming pool, which may not be the same one tucked behind the mansion on the back cover, several hills and a continent away from the bungalows and skyscrapers on the front, while dark figures help a snake through the grass.
Joni Mitchell The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)—3