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Haunted by Loss   Print

by Charles M. Young
Atlantic Monthly
December 1996

Someday Joni Mitchell will release an indispensable boxed set. Until then we can buy either her back catalogue or Hits and Misses (Reprise), two CDs that visit, respectively, the high points of her three-decade recording career and some equally high but lesser-known points. Mitchell seems to have been born an old soul, possessed of a Zen-like knowledge that everything changes with perspective and time, and all we can do is hold on to our memories until they change too. That she arrived at this insight as a full participant in the Dionysian frenzy of the sixties probably explains why her album sales have never quite lived up to her considerable reputation. She was haunted by loss and mortality when everyone else in her generation was grabbing for the gusto. Now that all the other Baby Boomers are haunted by loss and mortality, her songs take on an almost unbearable poignance. If you haven't listened to "Woodstock" for a while, try turning out the lights and putting on the headphones. It's just Joni and her electric piano and the idealism of a generation in all its courage and naiveté. Chills and misty eyes are guaranteed. Mitchell's other great talent as a lyricist is her wonderful knack for weaving in political themes without coming off as didactic or overly earnest. When she sings a line like "They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot" in the upbeat "Big Yellow Taxi," you want to sing along and tap your foot. Only afterward, upon reflection, are you blasted by that old loss and mortality. Finally, Mitchell has always had the musical imagination to frame her lyrics. Whether accompanying herself with her idiosyncratic guitar picking or working with the best jazz musicians in the world, she has never gone for the obvious note. Just the right one.

 

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