No one will argue against the notion that Joni Mitchell is one of the most revered artists of our time, but few people outside her circle of devout followers truly understand her reputation as a historical revisionist. In other words, boy howdy does Mitchell make sure her legacy is represented just how she wants it to be.
It all started in 1996 when, upon her label’s insistence that Mitchell release a greatest hits compilation, she agreed to so long as another album of “greatest misses” was manufactured as well, leading to the aptly-titled compilations Hits and Misses being released on the same day. Then, starting with 2000’s Both Sides Now and continuing with 2002’s Travelogue, Mitchell became obsessed with doing jazzier, full-orchestra recreations of her own catalog, twisting and subverting her own hits in new and sometimes perplexing ways. While Travelogue especially remains an alternately fascinating and frustrating document of career revisionism, its existence is very important. For the four-disc box set Love Has Many Faces — which Mitchell compiled herself — she has decided to construct her legacy as she sees fit, culling deep cuts few would have ever thought warranted inclusion while also upsetting the status quo by substituting the orchestral versions of some of her hits over the studio originals. Ultimately, this makes for a sonic document that winds up telling Joni Mitchell’s story, but not the Joni Mitchell story.
As the title indicates, this compilation deals with songs about love in all its forms. However, even with that loose guiding principle, there are some questionable inclusions. When one thinks of Mitchell’s peons about love, the breezy sway of “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” from 1991’s Night Ride Home does not immediately spring to mind. Although it’s not a “hits” compilation per se (i.e. no “Big Yellow Taxi”, “Woodstock”, or even “Free Man in Paris”), a lot of the agreed-upon must-haves can be found here: “Car on a Hill”, “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio”, “River”, “Court and Spark”, “Blue”, “All I Want”, “Just Like This Train”, “Down to You”, “A Case of You”, “Raised on Robbery”, etc. Yes, “Both Sides Now” is included, albeit in sweeping late-period orchestral form. While some may question as to the inclusion of this version over the studio original, the case can be made that given this was the cut used in Love, Actually, so it would be the one younger fans are more familiar with.
Keep in mind, however, that these hits are strewn about the four entire discs, interspliced with deep cuts culled from albums ranging from 2007’s polarizing Shine (“Hana”) to 1971’s Blue (but, strangely, nothing from her first three albums). Given that this is Mitchell basically rewriting her own history, it’s fascinating to see how she views her own strengths. Three cuts are culled from 1979’s Mingus and 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, one from 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, etc. Overall, Mitchell calls upon songs that aren’t so much “difficult” as they are heavy on artistic intent, as the spoken-word breakdown of “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” from Hissing doesn’t usually come up in first round discussions of Mitchell’s greatest achievements.
Regardless, the exclusion of songs like “Help Me” in favor of the painfully dated Billy Idol duet “Dancin’ Clown” and the regrettable “Tax Free” are definitely curious calls. Yet fans both casual and devout can still enjoy uncovering lesser-known fare like “The Only Joy in Town” and the woefully underappreciated 1991 Canadian hit “Come in From the Cold”. Through this box set, someone may get to uncover something like a quiet charmer like “Yvette in English”, but, again, this is only a portion of Joni Mitchell’s story, and the lack of songs like “Coyote”, “Night in the City”, and “Chelsea Morning” make for a frustrating portrait, and even if using the “love songs” dictum, there is still no reason why “Help Me” is shut out while 1988’s veiled showbiz lament “Number One” makes the final cut.
Then again, in 2004, Mitchell commissioned a triptych of compilations of her work, and between those three discs (the ’80s-heavy The Beginning of Survival, the “classic hits”-focused Dreamland, and 2005’s Canadian-oriented Songs of a Prairie Girl), one thing became clear: Mitchell’s legacy is one that intensely hard to define. Chart hits alone won’t tell her story, nor will her own deep cut diving, which she again attempts with Love Has Many Faces. Sure, she gets closer to providing a definitive portrait here than with those 2004 comps but by holding on to some precious darlings that mean something to her but little to everyone else, she still doesn’t manage to stick the landing. Despite her obvious pop instincts, Mitchell prefers to remain an enigma, and Love Has Many Faces, while noble in intent, only furthers the idea that she is a capital-A artist, one who refuses to compromise her vision on what her own legacy should consist of, both for the better and for the worse. Love Has Many Faces is a great box set, but make no mistake: while it does tell Joni Mitchell’s story, it may not be the exact one you’ve been wanting to hear.