Friday, May 8, 2009

For a Song: Edith and the Kingpin

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.


Ralph said...

Simply a marvelous post, Darius. You've put into words what I've thought for many years. Joni Mitchell will be remembered as a seminal figure in pop music at least as important as Dylan, and she is an immeasurably more complete artist. We're lucky to share the planet with her.

Linda - SE PA said...

One of the best parts of coming of age in the "Boomer Generation Music" has been listening to the evolving moments of the artists that continue on.

Joni is one of my favorites and while I had my moments of do I-don't I, I have found that as I've moved on in time, my taste/choice is music has altered a bit also.

Sometimes I appreciate later day Joni more than early day Joni. My favorite of Joni's was the Blue album - yet, on certain days I would rather listen to her later work. Some of her earlier work is a chronicle to the time, so often has a tinge of being dated as well as timeless - I sense this depends on your listening ear.

Yet, she remains and will remain one of the "greats of our time" and if we measure Dylan as a standard of the times - so is Joni Mitchell as well as others.

nan said...

Hello! Found your blog on recommendation from Ralph, and I am so glad I did! I am a huge Joni Mitchell fan - and I actually LOVE Hissing - and this song is one of my favorites. I am sure you've heard the Tina Turner cover on Herbie Hancock's tribute album. It is a great cover, but then, there's nothing like the original either. I look forward to checking out the archives here, and reading from here forward.