Joni Mitchell: Edith and the Kingpin
Edith and the Kingpin comes from my favorite Joni Mitchell album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. This puts me in a distinct minority. Mitchell achieved the height of her success with her previous album, Court and Spark. But the release of Summer Lawns cost her almost all of her newest fans, as well as many who had supported for years.
It has been said that the problem was Joni Mitchell’s exploration of jazz, but that actually began with Court and Spark. The band on the two albums is almost the same, and the sound is not that much of a leap either. So, what happened?
Mitchell basically invented the confessional singer-songwriter genre. There was almost no need to ever ask how her love life was; just listen to the newest songs. And no one has ever done it better. But finally, Mitchell grew tired of baring her soul in public. She began to crave privacy. And so, she did the unthinkable: she wrote an entire album of songs in the third person. And that was The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Her fans, new and old, were horrified.
What these fans missed was the fact that Mitchell had now revealed another facet of her talent: she is an amazing storyteller. At this point in her career, no one had seen many of her paintings. But the new songs revealed a great visual sense, in addition to a great feel for her characters.
Edith and the Kingpin presents the character of Edith, the new girl in the court of The Kingpin, who has no other name. We learn of Edith’s hopes and fears in this situation, while she deals with the discouraging words of a Greek chorus of “passed over girls”. But Mitchell also takes the time to consider the feelings of The Kingpin himself. “What does that hand desire, that he grips it so tight?” This image of one hand tightly gripping the other in a struggle for control that I see in my head whenever I think of this song.
For the rest of her career, Mitchell has displayed her gifts as a storyteller again and again. Her tales remain highly visual, and highly empathetic. And, while there were glimmers of it in her earlier work, the career of Joni Mitchell, storyteller, really got underway in earnest here.