Ignore critics with score to settle, Mitchell's finale is spectacular
Joni Mitchell — Travelogue (Nonesuch/ WEA)
Joni Mitchell’s latest — and perhaps last — recording has been racking up some of the worst reviews of her career. Entitled Travelogue, and released on the boutique Nonesuch division of Warner Music, the album is a massive, two-CD project that sees the Saskatchewan native re-interpreting 22 of her own songs with a gigantic orchestra. Plus there are selected solo spots for such legendary sessioneers as pianist Herbie Hancock, saxist Wayne Shorter and Beatles and Rolling Stones sideman Billy Preston.
It’s an ambitious, extraordinary project that bares comparison to Miles Davis’s landmark sessions with arranger Gil Evans on albums like Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Perhaps the bad reviews reveal more about the reviewers than the actual CD set they’re reviewing. Many rock writers are fed up with Mitchell’s endless griping about the music industry. I’ll bet some didn’t even listen to the album all the way through. Whatever the case, only a truly ignorant scribe could call Travelogue a bad album.
One listen reveals the double-CD set as a rich, astonishing sonic adventure. A second listen and you’re almost struck dumb by Mitchell’s peerless artistry. These songs, from the sparkling poetry of Woodstock to the tough, pitiless confessionals of Amelia and Refuge of the Roads, were extraordinary when Mitchell released them initially on classic albums such as Ladies of the Canyon and Hejira.
On Travelogue, these selections, along with 20 others, get the ultimate widescreen cinematic treatment from producer (and ex-husband) Larry Klein and arranger Vincent Mendoza. From the seething, impressionistic strings to the threatening brass section, the settings of the songs broaden and deepen Joni Mitchell’s extraordinary vision.
Except for the wildly popular Court and Spark, Mitchell’s albums have been relatively spare exercises, whether they be folk-rock or light-jazz in approach. While the two songs from that album (Just Like This Train and Trouble Child) simply reproduce larger versions of the original arrangements, the rest of Travelogue sees Mitchell’s music being re-interpreted both sympathetically and imaginatively.
Throughout, Joni Mitchell sings confidently, with a slightly huskier air. The whole project is superb from start to finish. And whether it is or is not, as the flaxen-haired singer-songwriter has promised, her last album, Travelogue is fitting cap stone to perhaps the most influential of all female pop artists.
With a miniature hardcover book full of her bright, but disturbing, magic realist paintings and a complete set of lyrics, Joni Mitchell has chosen to go out in fine style indeed. Travelogue is more than just an album: it’s a once-in-a-lifetime artistic event.