On Sunday March 27th Auckland is visited by one of the most singular and impressive talents in modern music: a singer/guitarist/pianist/ songwriter / woman called Joni Mitchell. Over the last 15 years or more she has charmed and fascinated countless admiring listeners with songs which convey her distinctly personal yet telling accounts of love celebrated and betrayed, of the fragility of happiness, and the un-trustworthiness of time. Her spell has no half measures - people are either captivated or quite unmoved by her, but those she does win over reserve a special dedication to her music.
At 39 years old Joni Mitchell is more than a survivor - she is an evergreen, whose words and music are as fresh, imaginative and inventive now as they were when she started (an unparalleled duration record). She is rock's truest individual, for rather than following trends and fashions she has remained quite untouched by them, following instead some solitary internal star of her own. Each album she releases marks a new direction with its own surprises and enigmas - on first hearing it appears quirky, disappointing, incomprehensible, and then days, months, years later its magic emerges to cast its spell for good. Her current record manager David Geffen has called her "The Picasso of songwriters" and to this writer her presence in N_______ land is as providential for her followers as Picasso's would be to the art scene, were he to visit our galleries for three days.
The association with Picasso is well made. Like Pablo she has attempted so much, in a remarkable variety of styles, while always remaining true to her personal vision. (Jonathan Richman's song about Picasso also comes to mind!) That vision is expressed as much in her masterful lyrics as in her music. While her career was still in its early stages, the acerbic American West Coast poet-critic Kenneth Rexroth picked her lyrics as ranking with the best poetry written by her generation. In my opinion she has since written some masterpieces of 'confessional' poetry, especially on Blue and Hejira, with an inventiveness of phrase and metaphor any poet might envy (Amelia, Song for Sharon and the title track are favourites). Similarly the pen-portraits on Court and Spark ('People's Parties', 'Down to You') and the characters on Hissing of Summer Lawns express acute insights in language that rivals anything in modern writing. Nor is this rave an uncritical one: Joni Mitchell has disappointed at times (on For the Roses, Don Juan and Mingus especially) but you learn more about yourself and her from those failures than from the triumphs of most of rock's fly-by-night successes and NME coverboys.
Her earliest songs were folky and 'Both Sides Now' gave her her first hit, although the plaintive 'The Gallery' and unaccompanied anti-war song 'Fife & Drum' were more representative of the individual sound that was to come. Their disarming honesty and quiet strength continued her best albums, and less surely into For The Roses. During the vogue for 'concept' albums she produced Court & Spark, a song sequence which maps the flowering and bitter decay of a love affair, and which heralded her gradual venture into jazz. Backing musicians included Tom Scott's L.A. Express, and the dope-drongos Cheech & Chong. Her next album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawn, swerved abruptly towards the avant-garde and experimentation, and from this point the fans of 'Woodstock' days started to baulk. Then, while the rest of the world was coping with the convulsions of punk and its condemnations of American blandness, Joni Mitchell called on ECM/Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius and saxophonist Wayne Shorter to help create the astonishingly sensitive and improvisatory songs on Hejira. It was a move few people were ready for, yet Summer Lawns and Hejira remain for me her most satisfyingly complete albums.
The experimental jazz connection continued through Don Juan's Reckless Daughter to Mingus, an unashamed but patchy homage to the old jazz master The result was controversy, and a hammering from jazz white woman was doing in a black man's art form. For an answer, listen to her double live album, Shadows and Light, recorded while on tour with Pastorius and the equally stunning jazz figures Don Alias, Michael Brecker, Lyle Mays and wonder-boy guitarist Pat Metheny. Besides being a fine summary of her work to date, it shows what a risky, joyful and versatile thing her music has become. Which brings us to the latest album: Wild Things Run Fast GHS 2019 (CBS).
Wild Things, then, is something of a retreat for Mitchell. Which isn't really a bad thing, as she was in danger of becoming rather esoteric, and painting herself into a corner in the process. Now she has tightened up the song structure and the words, returning to her favourite theme of love in apartments and boulevards, and concentrating on fluid rhythms and elegant songs. Yet despite the return to apparent accessibility, to my frustration I have found this as hard a record to come to terms with as any earlier one (except Mingus), though for rather different reasons. It appears trite, unadventurous, until you notice the inspired stretchings of Wayne Shorter's sax, Joni's clever melodies contain so much of her past music. I thought at first that the songs ranged from the commercial lightness of Be Cool and You're So Square (a Lieber-Stoller cover) to the poetic jazz densities of Moon At The Window, but after many patient listenings I'm not so sure. Each song seems to have its own subtleties as well as a pop cliche or two.
The comment has been made that Joni Mitchell can't go too wrong because she uses such good backing musicians. On this album only drummer John Guerin, Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton (from Court & Spark days) remain from the past, but Larry Klein (Pastorian bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), noted jazz guitarist Steve Luthaker, and Russell Ferrante (synth) prove a match for the lady, if not as dazzling as the Hejira/ Shadows & Light crew. (This is also in essence the band that will come on her tour.)
To consider the most distinctive tracks on Wild Things, you can start with the three featuring Wayne Shorter. Be Cool would be a catchy but light snatch of pop psychology but for Klein's resilient bass structures and the saxophone descants complimenting Joni's phrases, while Moon At The Window is the genuine jazz article, swinging to Guerin's drum brushes, and weaving the saxophone into delicious space _______ guitars and voice Love is something different again, that ambitious work, a musical setting of famous words. In this case the words are St Paul's hymn to love, and Joni has found a tune versatile enough to carry the words convincingly on her strong voice, leaving it to Luthaker and Shorter to provide the musical colour. Strangely, it works. In many years time it may even be a religious classic - for now it is an intriguing finale to an intriguing album.
Other notables are Chinese Cafe, a subtly textured display of nostalgia like Hejira's 'Song for Sharon', with an old cover spliced in as she did in 'Harry's House'. Joni's firm piano lines fade out to be tossed aside by rasping guitar and the vocal vitality of the title track. On side 2 You Dream Flat Tires is a muscly duet of bass and guitar matched by Joni Mitchell singing with The Commodore's Lionel Richie, while Man to Man is like a Court & Spark song fleshed out by jazz mastery and years of deeply-etched experience. A couple of reviewers have compared this album to Court & Spark, but for me the net effect is more like For The Roses: occasional lapses and moments of undeniable triumph making up an enigmatic, human record of happiness and heartbreak, in this case so much weightier for what she has learnt in the meantime. It entered the charts at 11, so already there are lots of people out there trying to make up their minds about it too.
For some reason (and I hope it's good) her concert is in the St James Theatre, a venue that can hold only just over 1000, so many people will miss out on seeing her. Which is a pity, because her music deserves to reach thousands more than her most punctual fans.