If you’ve ever spent more than 15 minutes in my company, you’ll know I am a hugely obsessive Joni Mitchell fan. I am really into her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. Although – like the majority of Joni’s releases – the album did terribly on the album charts (spending 8 weeks in the US charts, peaking at number 32), it was an important release in terms of artistic development: a move towards 80s mainstream rock and a precursor for her later standards collections.
To contextualise, Joni had been all but excluded from mainstream radio airplay due to her mid-to-late 70s albums – which progressed from 1974’s commercial high Court and Spark through the experimental fusion-jazz influences of The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976) and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) through to the minimalist elegy to Charlie Mingus, Mingus (1978). Mingus was a career highlight for Mitchell, but absolutely ruined her reputation in folk circles and turned off a lot of early fans. Having explored her jazz pretentions, it was time for a change of tack. During a trip to the Carribean in 1981, Mitchell heard the radio-friendly, rhythmic music of The Police (who had been duly influenced by the World Music experiments on Joni’s Hissing album), Steely Dan and Talking Heads, and took on the influences of these new bands for the new project. The album also makes direct, explicit references to Mitchell’s own formative influences in 50s rock and roll.
Equally important was the relationship she was beginning with her new bassist and producer Larry Klein, who helped develop her new, popular style for Wild Things. Joni fell massively in love with Klein – marrying him in 1982 – which had a direct influence on the theme of the new album: a dissertation on love. The album was widely slated for its theme – the word “love” itself is used no less than fifty-seven times on the record – during a time when music was, generally, turning towards nihilistic materialism: the 80s we have been reflecting on culturally since the late 2000s.
On a personal note, when I was first getting interested in Joni’s back catalogue – during the early days of this 80s nostalgia period – I was only interested in her work up until this point: her harsh post-jazz 80s work couldn’t hold a candle to her early 70s folk. Hell, even Big Yellow Taxi – in all its simplicity – was preferable to the buzzing Casios and cigarette-and-age slaughtered vocals of Wild Things, Dog Eat Dog (1985) and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988). Like Joni sang on the culturally critical title track to Dog Eat Dog, “Nothing is savoured long enough to really understand”. Given time, the message of these 80s albums properly sank in. I now see them as far more mature and considered than her earlier forays into the true nature of meaning and love (especially 1971’s Blue) – perhaps due to allowing these earlier albums to sink into my psyche during the seminal years of my emotional development and slowly easing myself into Mitchell’s depth.
Less chronologically sound than her later love-thesis Both Sides Now (2000), which goes through the process of the joy of finding love to the drawn-out pain of losing it to philosophic acceptance, Wild Things jumps from snapshot to snapshot of different vignettes, pieces of advice and aspects of the nature of love generally.
- “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” – 5:17 (Mitchell, Alex North, Hy Zaret)
- “Wild Things Run Fast” – 2:12
- “Ladies’ Man” – 2:37
- “Moon at the Window” – 3:42
- “Solid Love” – 2:57
- “Be Cool” – 4:12
- “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” – 2:36 (Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller)
- “You Dream Flat Tires” – 2:50
- “Man to Man” – 3:42
- “Underneath the Streetlight” – 2:14
- “Love” – 3:46
The opening track brings in both Mitchell’s acceptance of her maturity (“we’re middle class, we’re middle aged”) and the first strong example of the social issues (of “uranium money booming in the old home town”) which dominated her follow-up album Dog Eat Dog and appeared sporadically on later albums, particularly Shine (2007). It also establishes the 50s rock and roll element, with snippets of Unchained Melody and Carole King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (Joni Mitchell sang backing vocals on Carole King’s original version of this song). Unchained Melody is used to describe Joni’s growing need to find the daughter she gave up for adoption in the 60s – especially poignant on the line “are you still mine?” This is one of the finest examples of Mitchell’s postmodern technique of quoting a song out of context to shine a light on something unrelated (comparible to Harry’s House/Centrepiece on Hissing and the Canadian and American national anthems on A Case Of You (Blue) and the title track of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, respectively).
The title track is the first little vignette of an unbalanced relationship with a man who, regardless of his lover’s attempts to temper his need for freedom (sound familiar, Court and Spark fans?), leaves only a trail of footsteps in the snow while the protagonist dreams of their long, solid future together. This song has a quick quote from The Troggs’ classic Wild Thing in the outro.
Ladies Man is a slow-burning, edgy number about a different unbalanced scenario, where the man is posed with the question: “why do you keep on trying to make a man of me – couldn’t you just love me like you love cocaine?” while our protagonist tries a different technique, offering almost entire freedom to her flaky lover on the basis of trying to fulfil the “straight ahead feeling” she has for him, “nothing slick”.
Moon at the Window is an ambitious jazz track based on a Chinese proverb, lamenting the tasting and tossing of love by people who just don’t know how to love – but at the same time thankful users like those described in the previous two songs can’t take away everything, even when it feels like their rejection has.
Solid Love is the first song which seems to describe her relationship with Klein and the sheer shock of meeting someone capable of carrying out a relationship without wrecking the dream: “we got a break – unbelievable!” The music is based on those Carribean rhythms, combining her new Klein-influenced sound with two-tone island reggae. A lesser artist would sound kitschy smiling “hotdog, darlin’!” into the microphone, but Mitchell makes it work – along with a catchy chorus that really deserved more radio attention than it received on release.
Be Cool is a lounge jazz track that tries to give advice to anyone whose “heart is on the floor ’cause you just seen your lover comin’ through the door with a new fool,” along with the lines of the old adage – there are plenty of other fish in the sea.
Mitchell included a pretty straightforward rock and roll standard, You’re So Square – best known in versions by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly – which works very well alongside her heavier original compositions, keeping in step with the 50s theme.
You Dream Flat Tires is one of the album’s rocky highlights, with a great bassline by Larry Klein – and Lionel Ritchie duetting the chorus. It is the story of a love that started out full of hopes and dreams but quickly settled into uninspired languidity. The song poses the interesting question: “I know that you love me, but what are you going to let love be – just a vague flirtation or extra-special company,” alongside the album’s all important message: “love is precious!”
Man to Man features James Taylor on cheesy backing vocals, but is one of the most important songs on the album: the transition from transient short term loves and one night stands to, essentially, monogamy with Klein; questioning the value of all those lovers who wouldn’t stick around and the apprehensive hopes that both she and Klein are able to “care and share – woman to man”.
Underneath the Streetlight is an original rock and roll composition which, essentially, charts the day to day life of someone feeling the full-force-fire of love: swearing their dedication to love on every object from a lamppost to a passing lorry; unable to even consider the route of the vehicle without relating it to their lover.
The album ends on a purely serious note – bringing out the Bible and adapting lyrics from First Corinthians 13. Love describes, like the opening track, the changing face of love as one advances into maturity and the necessity of love in one’s life: “if I didn’t have love, I’d be nothing”.
Several songs from Wild Things were also included on the orchestral remakes album Travelogue (2002) – an album in which Mitchell broadly tries to piece together an existential world view, with love as one of the centrepieces of the human condition. Chinese Café/Unchained Melody, You Dream Flat Tires, Be Cool and Love are among the best tracks on Travelogue, perhaps by virtue of translating better stylistically to a big band jazz arrangement than songs from other albums.
Essentially I recommend this album to anyone with a heart and urge you to let it sink in, past the slightly dated arrangements; and hopefully you’ll agree Wild Things, as a dissertation, is worth at least an honorary doctorate for Ms. Mitchell-Klein.