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Bluer Than You   Print

by James Hale
Jazz Chronicles
March 9, 2009

Thanks to writer Michelle Mercer, I had the opportunity to read her forthcoming followup to Footprints: The Life and World of Wayne Shorter. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period will be released by Free Press on April 7. As the sub-title states, this is not a standard biography, but rather an examination of the context of Mitchell's fourth album, Blue, which was released in 1971.

A cornerstone of introspective, so-called "confessional" songwriting, Blue quickly became the soundtrack of young women who led with their hearts but kept their heads in the game of romance, too. Its potency leapt generations, as Mercer makes clear in her own opening confession, which sets the tone for the book. As an 18-year-old Kansas farm girl, Mercer judged prospective boyfriends by whether they could intuit the colours in Mitchell's music, see beyond the surface of her words and - the ultimate test - hear the influence of Claude Debussy at work. This is a highly effective opening because it clarifies the author's intention of delving equally into words and music, elements that are inseparable in much of Mitchell's work.

While she's a skilled and experienced music critic, Mercer is at her best when she approaches her subject from the basis of literary criticism. There is less insight about Mitchell's musical roots, though she does include this succinct passage about Mitchell's use of open guitar tuning:

"Standard tuning offered a compromise between simple, easy fingering for chords and the facility to play common scales from a single hand pattern.

This system is at first adequate for most musicians, because there are many combinations of finger positions or notes that can be used to create any chord. Some musicians find lasting contentment in standard tuning. The trouble is, for other artists, standard tunings can invite inertia, a hollow reverberation of old musical discoveries."

Mercer's biggest triumph, though, is capturing Mitchell in the book; not simply gaining her cooperation - no small feat - but in representing her voice so well. Anyone who has heard more than a few minutes of Mitchell discussing her own work is familiar with the mixture of wounded pride, arrogance and creativity that flows from her, and Mercer nails that combination. The only thing missing is the sound of the singer's incessant smoking, although the subject is addressed at several junctures.

Creating a book that inhabits the ground between hardcore academic study and celebrity-obsessed hagiography runs the danger of pleasing neither audience, but Mercer brings enough of herself - to say nothing of Mitchell - into play to broaden the scope into a unique brand of biography. Not without its flaws (I have some issues with the structure of the six sections, and the "Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves" seems ill-suited to Mercer's goals) the book succeeds in illuminating an important recording.

 

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