I listen to Joni Mitchell's voice these days with a fleeting pang of nostalgia. Flitting from one plaintive note to another, fluttering up and down the scales like a moth on tour of a chandelier, it brings back echoes of a distant time; a time when our only responsibilities were to ride on buses all round town with a copy of "Blue" beneath our arms.
Joni Mitchell is looking back too. She remembers her own adolescence in the "birth of rock 'n' roll days", and she's mindful of her reign as the queen of the singer/songwriters, when Wembley Stadium was an easy sell-out and her every heartbreak would be certainly and devotedly consumed by the entire listening world.
She remembers with a streak of sorrow that she nevertheless refuses to wallow in, choosing instead to articulate a dignified acceptance of passing time and the ageing process on the opening track of this album - "Chinese Cafe" (pointedly interspersed with contrasting sentiments from "Unchained Melody").
Mitchell writes: "This girl of my childhood games/Has kids nearly grown and gone/Grown so fast/Like the turn of a page/We look like our mothers did now/When we were those kids' age/Nothing lasts for long . . ."
In publicly decrying the archetypal idiot, the "eternal teenager" of the music business, Joni can proceed with a clear conscience to her more familiar lyrical concerns; her all-consuming explorations of love and emotion.
We follow her latest search through a series of false starts and self-doubts, painful observations and persistent communications, to the concluding but still inconclusive track, "Love". She knows what she's looking for, but hasn't yet found it in any completely fulfilling way, and so the quest will continue . . .
Joni Mitchell's personal maturity is reflected now in her music, with traces of the early, breathless style identifiable only occasionally on the album. "Solid Love" follows some half-forgotten melodic pathway, and "Be Cool" incorporates a recognisable tumbling of words - but these songs are too dependent on arrangement and mood and vocal variety to bear any more than a passing reminder.
"Be Cool" strikes far out into a lazy, jazzy, sax-y world of midnight blue, an atmosphere that's developed more fully on "Moon At The Window". These songs wouldn't sound out of place on Radio 2's "You And The Night And The Music". Nor, for their gentle easy-listening, would "Man To Man", the feathery "Ladies Man" or the slowly meandering "Love". This is an area that appeals to me; draws this album closer than anything since "Court And Spark".
Admittedly, there are no immediately noteworthy classics here, though several tracks pack something of a likeable punch on first hearing: the title song with its internal accelerations, the music suddenly and naturally starting to run as fast as the wild man of its lyrics; "You Dream Flat Tires" which works a pattern of intriguing designs into an agreeably rolling fabric; and "Underneath The Streetlight" with its precocious rhythms and joyfully optimistic outbursts, celebrating the discovery of love in a seedy, flashy and technical world.
I listen to Joni Mitchell's voice these days not only with a fleeting pang of nostalgia but with a new pleasure. She will embrace the past affectionately to the extent that she'll cover Lieber and Stoller's "(You're So Square) Baby, I Don't Care" - the current single and the one throwaway track on the album. But she is making music with the realistic and graceful perception of someone who realises that this is 1982.
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