In the broadest sense, Joni Mitchell’s career can be broken down into three parts. From her debut album in 1968 through to her commercial high-water mark with 1974’s Court and Spark, she was one of pop music’s most beloved singer-songwriters. Her soulful insights into the complex nature of modern relationships where free love and feminism intersected were treasured by lyric sheet-devouring fans and fellow performers alike, her songs eagerly covered by everyone from Judy Collins to Nazareth. Likened to a “Nordic princess” by Girls Like Us author Sheila Weller, the Canadian-born Mitchell also stood out as a flaxen-haired beauty and muse of the age, feted in song by paramours like Graham Nash and James Taylor, as well as by admirers like Led Zeppelin. Since 1980, in the wake of changing musical fashions, Mitchell has been more figurehead than superstar, releasing an album about every three years (until 2007) while navigating the twists and turns of a compelling personal history. In between was a fascinating transitional time where she hoped to keep her public while branching out from her folk-rock base, delving into jazz, ethnic rhythms and more ambitious narrative structures.
Smack dab in the middle of this 1975-79 period came this high-sailing double LP. Caught between possessive audience expectations and the higher critical standards of the time, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was widely dismissed upon its release, although her hardcore fan base was still large enough to make it go gold, Mitchell’s last album to do so.
An unsavory aspect of the “Don Juan” album is that Mitchell posed in blackface for the cover. I didn’t even realize this until decades after the record’s release and I bet I’m not the only one.
The stylistic “excesses” of DJRD did not materialize out of thin air. A vocalist, wordsmith and musician of uncommon and uncompromising talents, Mitchell’s adventuresome streak was already evident on her #2 hit Court and Spark with the elaborate time signatures of “Car on the Hill” and the verbose bebop of “Twisted.” By the following year she recorded “The Jungle Line”, a nearly unclassifiable mix of emphatic Burundi drumming, buzzing Moog synthesizers and lyrics suggesting global cultural interconnectedness and 1976’s Hejira was a sophisticated series of jazz-tinged tone poems inspired by a cross-country drive. But it looked like a case of ambition gone awry when Don Juan ushers itself in with the signifying “Overture” as Mitchell sets a stark mood with several alternately-tuned acoustic guitars while bassist Jaco Pastorius eventually enters with a coiling flurry of notes. This sound is as intriguing as it must have been befuddling for many fans at the time. Pastorius, the celebrated four-string master from Weather Report, would be the main collaborator for this album’s often-sparse soundscapes. But the material is not as unapproachable as was once claimed. This is still Joni Mitchell, the famous “romantic freelancer” as termed by critic Timothy Crouse, and the remainder of side one shows it. As ever, she’s stepping out and open to fresh discovery (“Cotton Ave.”) and wrestling with the possibilities of new love, taking forms both anxious (trying to coax a Mr. Mystery out of his shell in “Talk to Me”) and hopeful (the open-hearted “Jericho,” reprised from 1974’s live double Miles of Aisles).
Four decades removed from the bad press (the headline of Creem magazine’s write-up was “Don Juan Says He Doesn’t Know You”) most of this album proves to be a pretty appealing listen. At 59 minutes, DJRD its not time demanding and it gradually reveals its charms, even if they are sometimes held out at arm’s length. The glittering/tawdry Miami Beach vignette “Otis and Marlena” is a top-notch example of Mitchell’s descriptive powers (“the street lights fade away/on louvered blocks in sea green air”) and if the seven-minute percussion instrumental that follows seems a world away from “Both Sides Now” it doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. The heady rush of words on the title track proves that Joni can still write with the best of them, even the vintage Dylan that it resembles. The 34 year-old Mitchell is taking stock (“Last night the ghost of my old ideals/Reran on channel five”) of both her life and her artistic image, flatly stating, “There is danger and education in living out such a reckless lifestyle.” These sentiments, and the hint of retreat from her jet-setting aura, also run through Don Juan’s magnum opus, the sixteen-minute “Paprika Plains.” On either side of its long Aaron Copeland-channeling middle section, writ large for orchestra and Mitchell’s emphatic piano, are lyrics where our ambivalent heroine cinematically steps out on a balcony to escape a “stifling” high-society affair, the better to dwell on the simpler times of her childhood on the Canadian prairie. “I take my sharpest fingernail and slash the globe to see/Below me, vast Paprika plains”, Mitchell sings, before the daydream dissipates and she’s obliged to head back inside.
But it wasn’t really Mitchell’s choice to leave the party that was her long run of popular and critical success. A proud, headstrong artist who was stung by the reception afforded this ambitious album, she soldiered on with an unusual collaboration with jazz giant Charles Mingus before the onset of semi-obscurity. Mass audience openness to pop innovation that had started around 1967 had now waned but Joni, who had long railed against the machinations of the music industry, remained true to her unpredictable imperatives and causes. In her footsteps followed the likes of Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls, Joanna Newsom and countless others. Later years brought challenges to Mitchell beyond the romantic arena that she had chronicled so acutely. Since the 1990s she has acknowledged her health problems, has established a relationship with her adult daughter (who she gave birth to in 1965 but then gave up for adoption) and lent her voice to issues like environmental awareness. The future cares of later life seem to inform the closing moments of this intriguing and peculiar album. “In my dreams we fly” she sings as if about her generation’s heyday, but then notes that to make it over the long stretch of a lifetime, “we’ll have to row a little harder.”