For all its flaws, Dog Eat Dog is a fascinatingly skewed vision of ‘80s pop that simply needs to be heard to be believed.
Wild Things Run Fast (1982) was Joni Mitchell’s attempt to return to the pop mainstream after seven years in the jazz-rock wilderness. It was only a partial success. The first single, a cover of Leiber and Stoller’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” made her highest chart placement since the live version of “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1974. But its follow-up “Chinese Café” missed the Hot 100 entirely, and the album peaked at Number 25, tying with 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and falling eight places short of 1979’s Mingus.
It was likely for this reason that Geffen Records suggested Mitchell’s next album be produced by Thomas Dolby, who was still enjoying a short-lived reputation as a synthpop wunderkind after the success of his 1982 hit “She Blinded Me with Science.” Mitchell predictably bristled at the suggestion: “To think I need a producer makes me feel like a head of lettuce,” she told People magazine in late 1985. Instead, the artist and label settled on a compromise: Mitchell would share primary production duties with her husband and collaborator Larry Klein, with Dolby serving as a synthesizer technician—most notably for the Fairlight CMI.
Thus, while it may be tempting to blame Dolby and Geffen for the glossy, synth-heavy sound of 1985’s Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell was hardly a passive party. “The synthesizer was irresistible,” she told People. “It puts a whole orchestra at your fingertips.” Indeed, though the album is considerably lighter on jazz textures than its predecessor, it may be more experimental. Mitchell embraces the Fairlight’s expressive possibilities as wholeheartedly as she had the musicians of L.A. Express and the Weather Report in the ‘70s: weaving together densely atmospheric layers of sound on such tracks as, “The Three Great Stimulants” and “Ethiopia.”
The trouble is that, while her work in the previous decade was never less than strikingly original, Mitchell’s new aesthetic feels secondhand, borrowed from such art-pop successors as Kate Bush (whose superior Hounds of Love was released within a month of Dog Eat Dog) and contemporary maximalists like Bill Laswell. The album’s clumsiest moments reach for the mid-‘80s excesses Wild Things had merely threatened: Opening track “Good Friends” is, no shit, a duet with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald. But even the more appealing songs still call out for the organic warmth of Mitchell’s canonical work.
Surprisingly, the album’s most awkward aspect is in an area where Mitchell had been most consistent: her lyrics. Seemingly inspired by the mid-‘80s boom of socially-conscious message music (“We Are the World,” “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, et. al.), she conspicuously turns her gaze outward, tackling capital-“I” issues from consumer culture (“Shiny Toys”) to the hypocrisy of the Religious Right (“Tax Free”). The usual line for these kinds of topical songs is that they date the album; but seeing as we’re currently in the midst of the Reagan era’s Marxian repetition-as-farce, it’s actually kind of remarkable how many of the political lyrics still feel relevant.
Much more damaging is the fact that Mitchell has simply never been as sharp a political lyricist as she is a personal one. At best, her messages are merely banal; on “Fiction,” for example, she makes the not-so-shocking point that the media presents a constructed version of reality: “Elusive dreams and vague desires/ Fanned to fiery needs by golden boys/ In ad empires.” But at worst, they’re embarrassingly clueless; on “Ethiopia” she sings, with apparent sincerity, directly to the residents of the famine-stricken country: “Every Sunday on TV… You suffer with such dignity.”
The album’s nadir—and perhaps Mitchell’s as a songwriter—is “The Three Great Stimulants”: a six-minute dirge that manages to be both portentous and pretentious, with lyrics that feel less like Mitchell’s customarily transcendent poetry and more like a rambling, po-faced sermon. The year after Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell would famously open her set at Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope benefit with an acoustic version of this song, which is when the restless crowd began throwing things at the stage: Inexcusable behavior, but not inexplicable.
For all its flaws, Dog Eat Dog is a fascinatingly skewed vision of ‘80s pop that simply needs to be heard to be believed. The last two tracks in particular, “Impossible Dreamer” and “Lucky Girl,” hit upon an intriguing blend of Mitchell’s unique style and the new technologies she’d embraced, with guest Wayne Shorter’s saxophone providing a surprisingly effective counterpoint to the bright synthesizers and electric drums. It’s no coincidence that these less stilted songs are also more in Mitchell’s emotional wheelhouse than the rest of the album: impressionistic, romantic and, in the case of “Lucky Girl,” playful. The album could have used more of all of these things; but the little bit we did get makes it worth hearing nevertheless.