Joni Mitchell: A Defector from the Petty Wars
Joni Mitchell is unquestionably one of the finest popular songwriters of the last half-century, and takes her rightful place with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and a handful of others as a highly incisive observer of her generation’s struggles and triumphs. Like all of the artists to whom she can rightfully be compared (and they include her heroes Miles Davis and Picasso), she has followed her own muse at great peril to her career, only to find herself more greatly admired at (or near) the conclusion of that career. Mitchell has influenced successive generations of female singers, songwriters, and performers from Sarah McLachlan to Cassandra Wilson. Singer Karrin Allyson has covered her songs, pianist Rachel Z recently recorded an entire album of instrumental versions of her work. Yet as admired and influential as Mitchell is, she also finds herself in an industry that prizes youth and sex above all else. Writing erudite songs full of mythical, literary, and biblical references is all well and good, but she doesn’t make videos, and she’s . . . well, she’s not young any more. The real heart of the matter, though, the real problem, is that Mitchell doesn’t play by the rules of the record business, and almost never has. That, as much as anything, is why the music business will be glad to be rid of her if, as she says, Travelogue turns out to be her last recording. For that alone, the industry deserves a public that no longer wants to buy their overpriced, cheaply-made wares, preferring instead to continue downloading music for free from a never-ending procession of Napster replacements. That, and a plague of locusts, just for good measure.
Mitchell is often referred to as a folk/rock artists or a folkie or some other equally idiotic term, despite the fact that the folkie element in her music had pretty much run its course by the time she recorded her third album, Ladies of the Canyon. She was still a hippie love-child with an acoustic guitar, but “Big Yellow Taxi” hinted at the jazzier phrasing and sense of humor to come, just as “For Free” and “Rainy Night House” hinted at the darker lyricism that would define future work. Even “Woodstock”, a hippie folk anthem if ever there was one, was far more interesting and lyrically original than anything normally allowed by the folk conceit. Indeed, the only song here from before Ladies of the Canyon is “The Dawntreader” from her debut album, Song to a Seagull. No, Joni has always had the lyrical freedom and vocal depth to suggest much more than folk, and it was her natural affinity for rhythm that led her towards jazz. Her lyrical flights would often escape from her the way notes escaped from Charlie Parker’s horn, bursting forth from some unseen divine inspiration, scattering, and just as soon being forgotten in the next blinding epiphany.
Starting with 1974’s Court and Spark, Mitchell’s music actually began to swing, and on ‘75s Hissing of Summer Lawns she could no longer hide her need to experiment. That album, unrepresented here, was the turning point for some of Mitchell’s fans, a line they wouldn’t cross as she moved further into jazz, threw in some Third World drumming, and generally refused to repeat the formula that had made Court and Spark so successful. From there it was an easy flight to 1976’s Hejira and its follow-up Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. None of these albums had a radio-friendly single, and Mitchell was effectively blacklisted from radio airplay. Pop fans found her take on jazz, executed with the help of crack musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorious, pretentious, long-winded, and far too abstract for their tastes, while jazz listeners at the time considered her a dilettante. Such views were scarcely helped by her next release, Mingus, a collaboration with the famous jazz bassist and composer that ended up being his elegy. Mitchell was written off by radio and record labels and classified by many as a jazz artist, which is just as misguided as labeling her a folk artist. She returned to playing rather straight-ahead pop music on Wild Things Run Fast, and though the album did not do well commercially, it is clearly one she enjoyed writing and performing; there are four songs on Travelogue from this recording, making it (slightly) more heavily represented here than any of Mitchell’s other work. It’s somewhat interesting that there is nothing here from Hissing of Summer Lawns, and nothing from the two ‘80s albums that followed Wild Things: Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark In a Rain Storm. That’s probably because those were both genre-hopping, stylistically searching albums for Mitchell on which she was uncharacteristically off-balance, and though they hold a certain charm, you won’t find too many Mitchell fans who’ll say they love these recordings. But she does visit 1991’s “return to form” Night Ride Home and 1992’s masterpiece Turbulent Indigo.
Actually, Mitchell’s more recent work, well represented here, lends itself very well to the orchestral treatment it gets on Travelogue, as the songs are generally less jazz-inflected and play with more formal structures than some of her earlier work. For example, “The Sire of Sorrows (Job’s Sad Song)” benefits from the thirteen voice choir that comments on the laments of Job, a dialogue that was harder to hear on the original recording when Mitchell sang all the parts. Likewise, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (based on the Yeats poem) benefits from the foreboding string figures that loom over an oppressive cauldron of low brass, summoning the horrible beast of Yeats’ millennial poem, a beast that seems all the more real in light of recent world events: “Shaped like a lion / It has the head of a man / With a gaze as blank / And pitiless as the sun / As it’s moving its slow thighs / Across the desert sands / Through dark indignant / Reeling falcons”. But the orchestral approach is less satisfactory with regard to earlier songs, particularly those that relied on a certain rhythmic fluidity between Mitchell and her rhythm section. It was that fluidity that made bassist Pastorious the perfect foil for much of Joni’s free-form jazz poetry, and that is precisely what is lost in the conversion to more formal large-scale arrangements of the work.
Mitchell often seems slightly rushed because she must get somewhere to be in sync with the arrangements; she must hit her mark. This is apparent right from the album’s opener, the remarkable “Otis and Marlena” from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. It’s a song I’ve always enjoyed because of its sly humor, which derives as much from Mitchell’s vocal delivery as from the lyrical content of the song (which is hilarious, nonetheless). On the original she sings the lines “Otis is fiddling with the TV dial / All he gets is cartoons and reruns” with an emphasis on the words “cartoons and reruns” as though she is dizzy with the channel switching or perhaps simulating the maneuvering of a rabbit-ear antenna for better reception, while here it’s just a throwaway line. Frankly, one element that is much missed is Mitchell’s own guitar, which persuasively accents such lyrics as “Marlena, white as stretcher sheets / Watches it all from her 10th floor balcony / Like it’s her opera box / All those Pagliacci summer frocks”. The amplified, reverb-heavy guitar of Hejira is missed as well. Mitchell may not have been a trained guitarist but she developed her own tunings and style on the instrument, and that contributed mightily to the unique sound of her recordings.
The orchestral arrangements of her earliest work, including “Woodstock”, “The Circle Game”, “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, and “For the Roses” seems like a gambit to add weight to these songs, as though their earlier incarnations were too pop-influenced to allow them to be taken seriously. It is unfortunate if Mitchell feels that giving them weightier arrangements will give them greater weight, particularly since they scarcely need such justification. Heard this way, Travelogue seems like an attempt to leave listeners with an authoritative Norton Critical Anthology of her work, stripped of any period-defining sounds that might cause it to be misunderstood or, worse yet, dismissed by future listeners. OK, so the Blue version of “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is accompanied by Mitchell’s open-chord, faded blue jean piano work, but is it really improved or given added depth by an overwrought orchestral arrangement? Admittedly, the arrangement is a suitable setting for Mitchell’s mature (formerly soprano, now alto) voice, but I wonder if a more suitable, equally dignified setting might not have been for Mitchell to simply record these songs with the ensemble of wonderful jazz musicians who contribute to these performances: drummer Brian Blade, bassists Chuck Berghofer and Larry Klein, pianist Herbie Hancock, organist Billy Preston, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Plas Johnson, flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler, and percussionist Paulinho DaCosta. Setting Joni loose with this ensemble would likely have produced fresh versions of these songs that could have both cast them in a mature, era-free setting yet still allowed for more give and take between Mitchell and her accompanists.
Despite these criticisms, Travelogue cannot be dismissed as a failure nor an attempt to collect more cash without doing more work. On her last two projects, 2000’s Both Sides, Now and this one, Mitchell has moved wholly into the role of an interpretive singer. On the earlier album she covered classic torch songs like “You’re My Thrill”, “Comes Love”, and “Don’t Go to Strangers”. She also did new versions of two of her own songs, the always popular “A Case of You” (recorded recently by Jane Monheit and Diana Krall) and “Both Sides, Now.” The former song did well with its new arrangement and in the company of such classic material while the latter collapsed under such weight. Now Mitchell is interpreting her own material, and it seems natural that the more recent material should resound more, offer more depth and maturity, than the earlier work, but it isn’t always so clear-cut.
After somewhat stilted takes on “Otis and Marlena”, “Amelia”, and “You Dream Flat Tires”, the first disc gathers momentum and meaning by virtue of deft programming. “Love (I Corinthians 13)” a meditation on love based on scripture leads into “Woodstock”, a song about achieving divine love and heaven on Earth (“We are stardust / Come from billion-year-old carbon / We are golden / We just got caught up in some devil’s bargain”). Equally compelling is the vision of the rise of evil in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a reminder than things can easily go both ways. The next track, “Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)” is about the rage of the artist denied earthly love to balm the pain of seeing (and expressing) too plainly the beauty around him, while “The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)” is about the rage of a common man whose faith in God is severely tested. The disc concludes with “For the Roses”, “Trouble Child”, and “God Must Be a Boogie Man”, all meditations on the life of the artist and/or the trials that seem to deny the possibility of benign divine intervention in this world. The cumulative effect is powerful, and it’s not just in the lyrics (powerful though they are) it is in the arc of Vince Mendoza’s arrangements and, in the case of some of the songs, in the contributions of Brian Blade, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock.
The second disc never achieves this kind of effect, even though most of the songs do share recurrent themes of flight, lost love, and a melancholy awareness of the passage of time. They just never quite gel as a suite of material, probably because at least half of them (“Be Cool”, “Just Like This Train”, “Sex Kills”, “Refuge of the Road”, “Hejira”, and “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody”) need the opportunity to swing more and feel too constrained by their large-scale arrangements.
One reason that Mitchell may have felt compelled to provide this type of overview of her career is that, first, no one else was likely to do it and, second, no one else could really be trusted to do it properly. Who among today’s performers could interpret some of Joni’s darker material without resorting to sentimentalism? How many artists could even comprehend what some of these songs are about? Some jazz vocalists come to mind, but they would likely arrive with too much of their own agenda. Those who can write as well as Mitchell—Dylan, Young, Tom Waits, Robbie Robertson, Lou Reed—all have idiosyncratic vocal styles that would interfere with the listener’s ability to separate the singer from the song. So, there is no one who can properly sum up Mitchell’s career but Mitchell. Travelogue is just what the title says it is: a talk or lecture on travel, the artistic journey that Joni Mitchell has undertaken and a series of snapshots of the places that it has taken her. Or, more accurately, a narration of memories culled from a series of snapshots, the snapshots being the songs themselves. Memory is inaccurate, but ultimately it is what makes us human. A snapshot is flat, it can hint at the state of mind of the person who took it at the moment it was taken, but it holds back secrets. Memories are usually mellower, a little better than the actual event, but they demonstrate how we have made sense of all the experiences we’ve had, and that narrative we develop gives meaning to our lives. In the end, it’s really all we have. As Mitchell sings in the closing “Circle Game”: “So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty / Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true / There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty / Before the last revolving year is through”.
I sincerely hope that this is not Joni Mitchell’s last recorded work. I’m sure there is still much she can pull from her recurrent themes of lost love, lost time, and memories. But it’s not as though she hasn’t given us a body of work that we can delve into again and again, no matter what stage of our lives we are in. No doubt some of her own dreams have lost some grandeur in coming true. It would be churlish to deny her new dreams, maybe better dreams before her last revolving year is through. And so we accept this gift graciously. I know that I’ll return again and again to Mitchell’s many albums and continue to enjoy these songs in their original versions. But Travelogue will always be there, offering its own peculiar power, its widescreen arrangements like “the clouds of Michelangelo / Muscular with gods and sungold”. If Mitchell is silent after this, Travelogue will stand as a beckoning presence and a monument to 30-odd years of work, which is probably as she intended. But her legacy is already assured by the enormous shadow she’s cast over the art of singing and the craft of songwriting, as well as her example of how to stick to your guns, even in a business as sordid, shallow, and full of carneys as the music business.