A document of one of the greatest songwriters of her generation, approaching a new decade with undampened felicity and sophistication.
The ‘80s, generally speaking, weren’t kind to the generation of artists who got their start in the ‘60s. Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of changing musical trends and an encroaching middle age for which there was no precedent in rock ‘n’ roll, most opted for slick, inoffensive MOR rock that sounded dated almost immediately upon release.
At least on paper, Joni Mitchell didn’t seem like the kind of artist who would fall into that trap. Mitchell had spent the last few years of the ‘70s about as far from the pop/rock mainstream as possible, recording with Charles Mingus and members of the jazz fusion group Weather Report. But during a trip to the Caribbean in the summer of 1981, she told Musician magazine, she heard New Wave reggae-rockers the Police at a disco and was inspired to make “a more rhythmic album”—her words for her most conventionally pop-oriented effort since 1974’s Court and Spark.
But 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast doesn’t especially sound like the Police—or Talking Heads or Steely Dan, her other stated influences for the album. Instead, it sounds more or less precisely like the kind of album a 39-year-old folkie-turned-jazzbo would record when turned loose in the studio with session pros like Toto guitarist Steve Lukather and her then-boyfriend—soon-to-be-husband—bassist Larry Klein. Hearing Mitchell’s inimitable voice over Lukather’s blaring arena-rock guitar on the title track, or Michael Landau’s on the ill-advised cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” is a jarring experience to say the least. But hearing her belt out “Yes I do—I love ya!” over more of the same on “Underneath the Streetlight” is downright surreal—the closest Wild Things comes to the death-of-the-‘60s depths that would be plumbed by Grace Slick and Starship in a few short years.
Luckily, Mitchell remained too discerning an aesthete to go full Knee Deep in the Hoopla, so the majority of Wild Things is recognizably Joni, albeit trimmed of her more experimental impulses and dressed up with contemporary sonic touches. “Chinese Café” is a wistfully affecting opener, depicting a reunion between Mitchell and a childhood friend: “We’re middle-class/ We’re middle-aged/ We were wild in the old days,” she sings, presaging the boomer nostalgia that would soon be codified into something insufferable by Lawrence Kasdan’s 1983 film The Big Chill. As ever with Mitchell, however, her lyrics hide depths of emotion in the simplest turn of phrase. The sentimentality of her comment that “We look like our mothers did now/ When we were those kids’ age” is enriched and complicated by a reflection on her own lost motherhood: “My child’s a stranger,” she sings, referencing the daughter she gave up for adoption as a poor 22-year-old in 1965. “I bore her/ But I could not raise her.” The way Mitchell interweaves the pop standard “Unchained Melody” into her own song is a trick she’s pulled off previously, with “Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on 1971’s “This Flight Tonight,” but it nevertheless shows her deftness as a composer and arranger.
Elsewhere on the album, Mitchell’s dissections of the nuances of heterosexual relationships remain as trenchant as ever. On “Ladies’ Man,” she asks the titular charmer “Couldn’t you just love me/ Like you love cocaine?”—a withering dismissal that could apply to pretty much any of her well-known paramours. Less characteristic, but still welcome, is the ebullient, reggae-tinged “Solid Love,” which uses Mitchell’s backlog of troubled-love songs as subtext for her and Klein’s blossoming relationship: “We got a break/ Unbelievable,” she sings, “Right in the middle of this/ Hollywood heartache/ We got this solid love.” It’s the most unabashedly commercial Mitchell had been in a decade, but it’s hard to begrudge her for it when she sounds this joyful.
Nor, happily, does Wild Things represent a total break from the jazz influences of Mitchell’s previous decade. Among the studio hands on the album are John Guerin of the L.A. Express, who had backed Mitchell on Court and Spark, 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns and the 1974 live album Miles of Aisles; as well as fusion multi-instrumentalist Larry Williams, Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante, ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and Miles Davis/Weather Report veteran Wayne Shorter. The constant on each track is Klein, whose fluid, versatile bass plays a similar role to Jaco Pastorius’ on 1976’s Hejira, bringing a level of rhythmic complexity that elevates even the most conventional pop songs. It’s the combination of Mitchell’s mercurial melody and Klein’s and Guerin’s busy rhythm section that rescues “You Dream Flat Tires” from schlock-rock mediocrity—no small feat with Landau’s guitar-shredding and a vocal cameo from Lionel Richie to contend with. Shorter, meanwhile, echoes Tom Scott’s presence on 1972’s For the Roses, drifting ethereally in and out of the mix with haunting sax lines on the slow-burning ballads “Moon at the Window,” “Be Cool” and “Love.”
Perhaps inevitably after the two messy albums it followed, Wild Things was received as a return to form by most critics in 1982. Today, like most ‘80s albums by ‘60s and ‘70s artists, it’s mainly just ignored; certainly, its period-appropriate trappings haven’t aged as well as widely-acknowledged classics like Blue or even long-misunderstood dark horses like Summer Lawns. It’s tempting to imagine what Mitchell might have accomplished if she’d been as adventurous in her dalliances with early-‘80s New Wave as she had been with late-‘70s jazz fusion: how would we remember the album today if she had linked up with, say, Brian Eno to produce? But Wild Things remains worth hearing for what it is: a document of one of the greatest songwriters of her generation, approaching a new decade with undampened felicity and sophistication.