Mitchell displayed once again on her recent concert tour with Bob Dylan and Van Morrison that she's interested in more than just our applause. Rather than serve up familiar material from "Ladies of the Canyon" through "Court and Spark"--tunes that in the '70s made her one of pop's most revered figures--this classic songwriter showcased lesser-known but equally challenging works, including two from this album.
She may have lost on the applause meter to Dylan and Morrison, who did employ hit-based, listener-friendly sets. But Mitchell walked away from the shows knowing she had given the most gripping performances. She continues in that independent--and winning--spirit on this, the third in her distinguished series of '90s albums.
Backed by superbly tailored, jazz-accented arrangements that are at once aggressive and soothing, Mitchell, who doubles as producer, turns commentator in a couple of places, including a snarling slap at the state of contemporary pop: "Formula music / Girlie guile / Genuine junk food / For juveniles / Up and down the dial / Mercenary style."
Chiefly, however, Mitchell reflects on love, tempering her optimism with the caution (and wit) of someone who never forgets the accompanying struggle. Mitchell's songs have always acknowledged the complexities of relationships, but these songs are framed with the same kind of mature perspective found in Dylan's recent "Time Out of Mind" album.
That doesn't mean the outlook here is as dark as in Dylan's superb collection. In the closing vocal, in fact, Mitchell delivers a moving version of "My Best to You," a disarming toast written in the '40s by Gene Willadsen and Isham Jones. It's an interesting choice because the sentiments may be simply too innocent for the artist in Mitchell, but they obviously reflect something of the idealist in her.