Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm doesn’t sound like a work of art but a product—one from an artist who once possessed an unlimited capacity to surprise us.
In Girls Like Us, her book on female pop auteurs, Sheila Weller suggests that Joni Mitchell’s marriage to session bassist Larry Klein in the early ‘80s gave her the “luxury of thinking about politics.” It was around that time that Mitchell developed more of a conscience, moving from gentle comedies of manners and songs about love and awkwardness to such polemics as “Tax Free,” an indictment of the Christian right, and “Shiny Toys,” about consumer culture. But the idea that thinking about politics was a “luxury” for Mitchell should be a red flag that maybe it’s not a subject she ought to be writing about; some songwriters just shouldn’t write about current events. It’s one thing to be angry. It’s another to buy into a post-Lennon Messianism where the music itself is supposed to make a difference and you’re supposed to write songs like this. And in 1988, when Mitchell released Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm on the heels of Live Aid and “We Are the World,” there was way too much of that shit.
To be fair, a few of the album’s topical songs are pretty good. “The Beat of Black Wings,” covered so well by Janet Jackson, is a moving summation of the ravages of trauma on the human soul. “Snakes and Ladders” makes its point through soul-deadening descriptions of the corporate culture of the Reagan era; switch a few words and it could take place at Uber headquarters. But to hear Mitchell hoo-hah “I am Lakota” over and over again on “Lakota” is laughable. Mitchell is not Lakota. What’s more, her defacement of the cowboy staple “Cool Water” is hideous. Anyone who knows country music knows the song’s about a mirage in the desert, but Mitchell adds a twist: this time the water exists, but it’s poisoned by pollution. “Don’t drink it, man,” she cautions, like she’s starring in a PSA for high schoolers. That the song’s slowed down to an interminable crawl doesn’t help.
Nothing in these songs is as devastating as when she asks her lover “why did you pick me?” on “My Secret Place.” Mitchell is the best writer in pop about inferiority and social awkwardness, how stammering and silly love can be. Maybe the security of marriage made her feel a little better about herself, and though it’s cruel to value an artist’s skill above their happiness, the fact remains her writing here doesn’t play to her strengths. Though its forests of pads and pearly keyboards are often beautiful (swap her vocals on “The Tea Leaf Prophecy” with Karin Dreijer’s and it’d still make sense), there’s little room for her bizarre guitar tunings, so this is not one of her more distinctive-sounding records. Mitchell always stood at a distance from the folkie scene, but the Larry Klein albums mark the first time she was really inseparable from an era. Chalk Mark is unfortunately not just a Joni Mitchell album. It’s an ‘80s Joni Mitchell album.
It’s only further ossified by a glut of guests. The best, Peter Gabriel, blends in harmlessly, but the worst, (Billy Idol’s rock-vocal personification of a cold sore) yanks us out of the reverie with all the clumsiness of a Spotify ad. These extra voices add nothing to the art and are inexplicable as anything but a marketing ploy after the underwhelming sales of 1985’s Dog Eat Dog. That’s the saddest thing about Chalk Mark. Mitchell is one of pop’s most unapologetic auteurs, an artist that strives to push outside the box in the service of creating masterpieces, whose failures erred on the side of hubris. Even her uneven jazz phase was terrifically exciting. Sadly, this doesn’t sound like a work of art but a product—one from an artist who once possessed an unlimited capacity to surprise us.