1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns has a bizarre place within Joni Mitchell’s discography. Acting as the final bridge between her folky past and her jazzy future, the album comes complete with early experiments of sampling in ‘The Jungle Line’, fusions of Mitchell’s songwriting and jazz standards on ‘Harry’s House/Centerpiece’, classic Court and Spark-esque pop during ‘In France They Kiss On Main Street’ and hymnal a cappella tones on ‘Shadows and Light’.
Despite its modern-day acclaim, critics and audiences didn’t quite know what to make of Summer Lawns, especially when Court and Spark had established a new mainstream sensibility for Mitchell just the year before. It currently looks most like a sort of transitional album that occasionally gets lost in the cracks and not remembered or celebrated on the same level as its predecessor, or like its successor Hejira.
That’s a shame because Summer Lawns is quietly one of Mitchell’s most consistently and thoroughly enjoyable records. Not as sprawlingly nebulous as Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, not as jazzy as Mingus, and not as tied to her past as For the Roses, Summer Lawns finds Mitchell at the height of both her singing and songwriting abilities.
The stripped-back nature of the tracks are sonically closer to her first few albums, but the singing and songwriting has more to do with the flaws of success, the whirlwind of fashion and chicness, and the diminished role of women in the greater world, whether it’s in the reactive self-imagining on ‘Shades of Scarlet Conquering’ or the persistence of not being told what to do on ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’.
For those who felt that Mitchell’s direction became too cluttered as she embraced jazz and orchestration in greater detail after her initial folk years, these acoustic demos prove that she still focused on the core of strong songwriting: a great song is a great song even if it’s just a voice and a guitar. Mitchell didn’t need to prove that with every album, but these demos show that it still remained the basis of her creative process.