It seems like A Tribute to Joni Mitchell was already released, for Joni Mitchell tributes have become something of a commonplace event. Among the evidence: a 2006 music education benefit held at Carnegie Hall in Mitchell’s honor, the 2000 “All-Star Tribute” TV special, the Central Park “Joni’s Jazz” concert from 1997, the “Dancing Joni” ballet choreographed to Joni Mitchell’s music, not to mention the preponderance of cover tunes by everyone from Betty Buckley to Tori Amos to Richie Havens. As one of Canada’s greatest national treasures and among popular music’s most brilliant songwriters, Mitchell certainly deserves these multitudes of tributes. Strangely, it’s taken close to a decade for A Tribute to Joni Mitchell to be released. Songs that were recorded at the project’s inception more than 10 years ago keep company with material recorded as recent as 2006, in addition to tracks that were previously released independent of this project. As such, there’s a bit of mystery about how these songs ultimately came together despite the good intentions of Nonesuch head Robert Hurwitz to present a cross-section of artists and styles. Still, like many tribute albums, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell is an inconsistent listening experience for all the ground it seeks to cover.
What is immediately evident on A Tribute to Joni Mitchell is how many varied approaches there are to interpret her music. This is the album’s blessing and curse. Take “Free Man in Paris” and “Help Me”, the two cuts representing Court and Spark (1974). “Free Man in Paris”, which opens the disc, is a vanity piece for indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens. He slices and dices the melody, instrumentation, and phrasing until the song is completely his own, which is not a bad thing per se, but it exhibits his strength as an arranger and weakness as a vocalist. Stevens’ weary, almost mumbled delivery is underwhelming. The magisterial horns are about the only thing done right; fans of Stevens will certainly find more to like here than Mitchell’s devotees. Less radical is k.d. lang’s faithful rendition of “Help Me” (Mitchell’s lone Top 10 hit). Though lang’s crystalline voice competently carries the melody over a laid back arrangement, she doesn’t convey the friction between lust and angst that made Mitchell’s so compulsively listenable. The versions of “Free Man in Paris” and “Help Me” represent the Catch-22 of A Tribute to Joni Mitchell: deviating too much from the familiar, as Stevens did, frustrates listeners while closely mirroring the original, like lang, invites unflattering comparisons.
There is something of a middle ground, however, where certain performers squeeze meaning out of the lyrics in a manner different than Mitchell while offering a fresh take on the musical elements. Björk’s wrenching version of “The Boho Dance” is the ideal marriage of these components. Originally a track buried on side two of The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), “The Boho Dance” is a biting study of the elitism that governs “starving” artists. Here, Björk sings like a disheveled ballerina slowly twirling inside the sparse music box-type arrangement. The elastic quality of her voice heightens Mitchell’s imagery:
Don’t you get sensitive on me
‘Cause I know you’re just too proud
You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance
Even if good fortune allowed
She spits the words out with equal parts disgust and wisdom. What was only hinted at in Mitchell’s delivery is laid bare in Björk’s.
Prince offers no less a riveting performance on his version of “A Case of You”, which was previously available on his ultra-rare One Nite Alone… (2002). One doesn’t see Prince making the rounds of tribute albums so his appearance here is particularly noteworthy. He sings “A Case of You” in its original key, caressing the lyrics with his distinctive falsetto. He also trades Mitchell’s acoustic guitar for gospel-tinged piano while retaining the intimacy of the song. Interestingly, he sings only the middle two verses followed by repetitions of the refrain, wringing every last drop of emotion from the lyrics.
Blue (1971), the album that originally contained “A Case of You”, established Joni Mitchell as the most confessional of songwriters. Many critics and listeners turned away from Mitchell when she began writing in the third person. Her lyrics, however, were no less incisive of the human condition. On “The Magdalene Laundries”, from Turbulent Indigo (1994), Mitchell wrote a chilling tale about the real-life laundry asylums in Ireland presided over by Catholic nuns, where “wayward” young women were sent for “penance”. The character created by Mitchell calls the nuns “the bloodless brides of Jesus”, who inflict degrading forms of psychological and physical punishment on her and the other women. Her fate is sealed inside the laundry:
One day I’m going to die here too
And they’ll plant me in the dirt
Like some lame bulb
That never blooms come any spring
Not any spring
Emmylou Harris gives a sympathetic earthiness to the story, her delivery marked by a profound and fervent sadness as she strums her guitar like tissue blotting away tears. It’s one of the very few tracks to actually improve upon Mitchell’s original. In marked contrast is Elvis Costello’s rendition of “Edith and the Kingpin”, another tune from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The most voracious of Joni Mitchell fans, Elvis Costello said of his arrangement, “I tried to write an orchestration that underscored many of the images in the lyric”. Instead, he over-thought the orchestration. “Edith and Kingpin”, a tune about a pimp and his coke-fueled harem, worked best on The Hissing of Summer Lawns with the pop-jazz musicians Mitchell employed to give the song the dollop of sleaziness her lyrics yielded. Costello takes himself too seriously with the preciosity of strings, horns, and his drawn-out vowels; “Edith and the Kingpin” collapses under the weight of Costello’s own lofty aspirations.
What A Tribute to Joni Mitchell suggests is that the best tribute one can pay Joni Mitchell is to seek out the original albums and experience the work through her voice and music. Joni Mitchell’s songs are like works of fine art: no matter how deft the brushstroke, one cannot re-create a masterpiece.