What better proof of your influence as a songwriter than another songwriter naming his album after a song of yours? After all, as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Rising young British singer-songwriter Harry Styles, earlier of One Direction pop-idol fame, has paid CSHF inductee Joni Mitchell the ultimate compliment by naming his forthcoming album after Mitchell’s song Harry’s House.
One of Mitchell’s lesser-known songs (it was not released as a single), Harry’s House/Centerpiece appeared on Side 2 of her Grammy-nominated album “Hissing of Summer Lawns,” which was released in late 1975.
Given Styles’s long-standing admiration for Mitchell’s music, calling his new album “Harry’s House” is a fitting play on his own name. “Love the title,” Mitchell tweeted upon learning of Styles’s title choice.
As Styles told “Rolling Stone” magazine, “Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, those are my two favourites. “Blue” and “Astral Weeks” are just the ultimate in terms of songwriting. Melody-wise, they’re in their own lane.”
So let’s look at Mitchell’s Harry’s House. It’s a moody, contemplative, high original piece. Musically the song is restrained and dreamy, almost stream-of-consciousness, and stylistically it’s a clear shift toward jazz, which she began experimenting with in the earlier “Court and Spark.” Lyrically, however, Harry’s House is a devastating commentary on 1970s North American suburban gender roles: frustrated bored women feathering the home nest while active men pursue their careers so the couple can keep up with the Joneses.
The lyric imagery is pure Joni, an original combination of paper symbolism (financial sales, wallpaper, House and Gardens magazine) and fish imagery (taxis as fishes, fishnets, Jonah and the whale, reeling the husband in). In just a few well-chosen lines, Mitchell sketches a damning portrait of the fast pace of the businessman’s day, contrasted to the wife’s non-productive day spent reading decorating magazines and dreaming up ways to spend his salary.
Rounding off Harry’s House is Mitchell’s cover of the happy-ever-after jazz standard Centerpiece, the two songs together painting very contrasting pictures indeed.
Twenty years after “Hissing of Summer Lawns” was released, Mitchell included Harry’s House/Centerpiece on the “Misses” portion of her “Hits and Misses” collection. Whether the song was a hit or a miss, we’ll leave to Mitchell and her listeners to decide; but we offer a big thank you to Harry Styles for helping us rediscover this Mitchell gem, whose thought-provoking message still resonates almost 50 years later.