Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, features the singer/songwriter performing tracks made famous by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday, among others. A 71-piece orchestra backs Mitchell on some numbers; a big-band group provides support on others. Alternately gorgeous and over-the-top, the album is unlikely to win Mitchell new fans among young listeners, but for those who have followed Mitchell’s career since the ‘60s, there are things to admire (and even like) here.
Foremost, Mitchell’s voice throughout the album is strong, expressive, and varied. Particularly appealing tracks include the classics “You’ve Changed,” “Don’t Worry About Me,” and the Rodgers and Hart number, “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” Other numbers, however, are dragged down by the in-your-face orchestra, reminding one of Judy Collins’s more kitschy efforts over the years.
Worse, Mitchell’s own (famous) songs—“A Case of You” and “Both Sides Now”—suffer especially from the new and too-often overbearing arrangements. The music is so lush that it overpowers the lyrics, forcing the understated and poetic art of these two songs to battle with the melodramatic leanings of the orchestra at all the wrong moments.
Mitchell’s album is far more complex (even when it fails) than, say, Carly Simon’s My Romance (1990), an album which took a similar kind of leap into the musical world of near-schmaltz . At the same time Both Sides Now comes nowhere near the flawless passion of k.d. lang’s Drag (1997), an album that showed how to make this transition with style, heart, and beauty.