Joni Mitchell's power as an artist hasn't diminished. However, her vision has become so bleak that the staunchest of fans might hesitate to follow her into the abyss of melancholy she currently calls home.
Always the tortured romantic, her early work was tinged with hope and brightened with moments of respite from love's torments. She reached peaks on "Blue," "For the Roses" and "Court & Spark." The naivete of her first albums was gone but she hadn't yet soured on love. Her writing was a classical balance on these LPs; fully developed without being convoluted or mannered.
Her last three LPs have found Mitchell weary of the road, yet unable to shake the demon that drives her on. Caught between a need for security and the intoxicating illusion of romance, her work has reflected an increasing pessimism. The verdict reaches its lowest ebb yet with this two-record set. Because of the format of the album, the final song, "Silky Veils of Ardor," can be interpreted as an epilogue. It's a gloomy prognosis:
Come all you fair and tender school girls
Take warning now—when you court young men
They are like the stars on a summers morning
They sparkle up the night then they're gone again.
In an apparent attempt to break out of the collection-of-songs format, this LP is structured as a sonata. It's a difficult, ponderous work that will be hard to assimilate for fans who have grown up with Mitchell although she may win new fans from the jazz world.
The traces of jazz that first appeared on "Hissing of Summer Lawns" are a dominant element here. Indeed, Mitchell now uses her voice as a jazz instrument. The yodeling octave jumps are gone.
Lyrics are rambling free verse that fight against the structure of the melodies, which are fragmented and oblique. The third side, or movement, digresses into an African jam comprised of drums and chants.
The sound of Mitchell's music has undeniably changed, but thematically she keeps crashing in the same car. She has yet to expand her scope beyond romance, a fixation that smacks of self-indulgence. Her music has always expressed a wariness for life in the fast lane, yet she seems to have acquiesced without a struggle to exactly that. As the cover of her last LP testifies, she wears the trappings of success quite well. Fascinated with the ennui of the idle rich, her songs frequently chronicle romantic roundelays evocative of the film "Welcome to LA."
The transitions she's making are extreme, and this LP is a lot to digest. As a whole, the album suffers from' a certain stylistic schizophrenia. The reserved classicism of "Paprika Plains" is confusing, juxtaposed with the ethnic jazz that dominates the rest of the album. The somber theme of "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," coupled with it's complex layering of styles, makes for quite a weighty collection.