By D.B. Atkins
►TREADING WATER VS. SWIMMING
The songwriting explosion of Stevie Wonder’s late adolescence and early adulthood gave us our finest modern pop standards, and his ability to move us deeply with the mere touch of his voice has never wavered—witness his astonishing chorus with Springsteen on We Are the World. But Wonder is also the saddest case of arrested development in contemporary American music. Since his wildly ambitious concept album, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, was trashed by the critics and ignored by the public in 1979, Wonder has been in a creative limbo.
The fact that he was more than three years late in releasing his new album, In Square Circle, meant one of two things: either he was working on something monstrously different, or he was plain stuck. Regrettably, the latter proves to be the case. The lyrics are banal and treacly, the melodies pleasantly hummable but hardly memorable, and the production mechanical. Wonder sings and plays everything oddly close to the vest: he sounds like an artist treading water, and tiring.
Joni Mitchell, on the other hand, dared to go off the deep end on Dog Eat Dog, her first album in three years. Co-producer Thomas Dolby has bathed her in a wash of synthesizer textures, electronic effects and quirky, stop-and-go drum machine rhythms. So though you’d expect her to drown—she has a fragile voice, a fussy intelligence and a rather precious artistic persona—Mitchell more than meets the challenge. While there’s absolutely nothing to hum here (she gave up writing gorgeous melodies years ago), there is everything to remember: sensual sweeps of sound, prickly lyrics, pleasingly puzzling arrangements, humor and sarcasm and sadness.
Dog Eat Dog, as the title suggests, is mostly about the social Darwinism of the Reagan years. She shoots verbal arrows, some not too subtle, at materialism in Shiny Toys (in which the phrase “I love my Porsche” is an ironic refrain); at cultural imperialism in the plaintive Ethiopia; and at right-wing, militaristic evangelists in Tax Free (in which she hired Rod Steiger to sermonize about a godly invasion of Cuba). The emotional and aural feel of the record is at once lush and stark—Joni Mitchell has created an album you can almost see.