Joni Mitchell, one of rock music's few true poets, is clearly still passionate about her music.
Other aging rock veterans - the Rolling Stones, Robert Plant, John Fogerty - labor on year after year, chewing their cud and trotting out ever more forgettable, tiresome and toner-starved Xerox copies of their once powerful hits. But Mitchell - whose "Blue" is simply one of pop music's greatest albums - has long realized an artist has to reinvent herself, or at least switch gears, to avoid wallowing in their own cliches or degenerating into an embarrassing self-impersonation.
Her new album, "Travelogue," is a live reworking of previously-released songs backed by a full symphony. While it is not as consistently riveting as "Blue," - or her lesser masterpieces of the late '60s, early '70s: "Song For A Seagull," "Clouds" and "Ladies of the Canyon" - it is certainly something that hasn't been heard before.
While her older albums are national parks, "Travelogue" deserves the lesser status but equally vast scope of a national monument. The thunderous fusion of folk, jazz and classical hovers alluringly on the horizon, as impossible to ignore - or not get excited about - as an approaching bank of dark grey rain clouds.
The best songs on "Travelogue" have an immensity and immediacy that only a full orchestra can provide. The opening track, "Otis and Marlena" and "You Dream Flat Tires," are among the best, coming off like the grand scores to some hazy, monumental event.
A key song on the album is "Amelia," which melds a woman's turbulent search for love with the doomed around-the-world aviation of Amelia Earhart. It is also the source of the title, "Travelogue."
The drone of flying engines,
Is a song so wild and blue,
It scrambles time and seasons,
If it gets through to you,
Then your life becomes a travelogue,
Full of picture-postcard charms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
A strange moment of upheaval on the album is Mitchell's Sept. 11-tinged reading of William Butler Yeats' harrowing poem of apocalypse, "The Second Coming." In the book included with the CDs, lines from the poem are printed over Mitchell's painting of Osama bin Laden, President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Mitchell adds her own words to Yeats': "Hoping and hoping, As if with my weak faith, The spirit of this world, Would heal and rise, Vast are the shadows, That straddle and strafe, And struggle in the darkness, Troubling my eyes."
Yeats' poem laments viciously the disintegration of the world -
"things fall apart," "the best lack conviction," "the worst are full of passion" - climaxed when a "rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born." With most other artists - such as the nauseatingly-patriotic country singer, Toby Keith - the "rough beast" would undoubtedly be Osama and his evil-doing henchmen. But Mitchell hangs on to Yeats' irony. While the poet's foil is religion, Mitchell's "rough beast" may just as easily be our commander-in-chief as the chief of Al Qaeda.
But the symphonic storminess, however, is at times also one of the album's liabilities. Some of the songs are swamped by the symphony and the poignancy they once had is smothered by the tidal wave of strings, horns and percussions.
What Mitchell has achieved in her best songs - "Carey," "Chelsea Morning," "Night in the City," "The Conversation" - is to fuel them with a locomotive-like energy - no matter whether the song is fast or slow, cheery or sad. This avid pulse keeps each tune's tenor charging from the opening note to the very last blossom of sound.
On "Travelogue," however, this energy is often lacking. Whether it's purposely shelved by Mitchell or accidentally buried, it tends to send the listener adrift, inspiring daydreams and other more mundane mental muttering instead of rapt contemplation of the music.
The orchestration even manages at times to smother Mitchell's greatest instrument - that angelic, wise and tough voice that she has long used to soar seemlessly between one perfectly hit note to the next.
(Of course, that's not to say Mitchell isn't also a haunting pianist and a tremendous guitar player - just try strumming some of her complex chord progressions and arrangements while vocally circumnavigating the musical scale.)
The most disappointing curiosity of "Travelogue," however, is the selection of songs. Along with the four mentioned above, also missing from the set list are many her more well-known songs, such as "Big Yellow Taxi," "California," "All I Want," "Case of You," and "River."
Included are "Woodstock" - perhaps more famously performed by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young - and one of her prettiest, most poetic songs, "The Circle Game." But backed by the symphony are too many songs from Mitchell's post 1975 albums, none of which match up to her first six or seven records - all of which are classics. Some of those post-'70s albums, in fact, are downright awful.
And sadly, the only track included from "Blue" is the song that seems to belong least on that stellar record, "The Last Time I Saw Richard."
Mitchell would have done well to perform a few songs from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," her most jazz-influenced and orchestral album. Those songs are among her most ambitious and complex musically, while the sometimes dense lyrics have aspirations of T.S. Eliot - perfect for a symphony.
Furthermore, the two-hour-plus album is tough to listen to all the way through. Mitchell's symphonic fusion is captivating at first, but the novelty wears off and "Travelogue" gets a little boring.
This review probably makes "Travelogue" sound like precocious junk. But it's not. For one, it's still Joni Mitchell, whose songs endure and whose voice has lost only a bit of its strength. One's only real wish for the album is that she'd taught the symphony a few of her greatest songs.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 970-949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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