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The Best of Times, The Worst of Times Print-ready version

by David Cavanagh
Q Magazine
December 1996

Joni and Leonard Cohen at Newport. Photo by DAVID GAHR

Most singer-songwriters' careers, if they are to last three decades, will be case histories in mercurialism, burn-out, cliffhanging and comebacks. Joni Mitchell has done it another way. Throughout 30 years of rock'n'roll drama, hysteria and tragedy - electric Dylan to Kurt Cobain - she has sat to one side, an enlightened sceptic and disarming romantic, making her own engrossing music with candour, foxy intelligence and profundity.

Her back catalogue - she's made 17 albums - has been cumulative in more ways than one. She started out in the mid-'60s with an acoustic guitar. In the early-'70s, she alternated it with a piano, spilling the bedroom beans in her bell-like voice, offering her listeners the crepuscular one-to-one challenges of Blue (1971) and For The Roses (1972). Her third album, Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), introduced cello, flute and sax. Come the masterful Court And Spark (1974) she had a jazz-rock band. A year later, on The Hissing Of The Summer Lawns, she juxtaposed Burundi chums, Moog synthesizer, dobro and bebop in a shimmering, intoxicating music of dark continents. By 1985 and Dog Eat Dog, her music incorporated Fairlights, programmed drums and Thomas Dolby.

A lyricist of insight, detail and economy of movement, she could always see an allusion through to its conclusion. A piano was never just a piano. It was "wires and hammers . . . broken trees and elephant ivories" (Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune)). On the title track of Blue (1971), she announced in the first line that "Songs are like tattoos" and then, in 11 lines, explained how and why. And she's still got the power. Yvette In English, a song about a French girl on her last album, Turbulent Indigo (1994), had a couplet to put the palate in a swoon: "Burgundy nocturne tips and spills/They trot along nicely in the spreading stain."

True, she is serious and a little po-faced. In the sleevenotes to her 1979 LP Mingus, a tribute to the jazz bandleader, she wrote: "Charles Mingus, a musical mystic, died in Mexico, January 5,1979, at the age of 56. He was cremated the next day. That same day 56 sperm whales beached themselves on the Mexican coastline and were removed by fire. These are the coincidences that thrill my imagination." Oy-oy-oy. . .

And Bob Dylan's biographer, Bob Spitz, reports her hitting the wrong note at a New Jersey prison gig in December 1975 on Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour. "We came here to give you love," she announced to the inmates. They booed her offstage.

But when her increasingly jazz-inflected records stopped hitting the Top 10 a few years later, Mitchell didn't panic, form a bar band or hire Steve Lillywhite. There was no silly re-think, no commercial sell-out, no weird PR. She continues to release an album every few years - Turbulent Indigo being the most recent. She is a painter (notably of her own album sleeves) and a poet with advanced ideas about Africa, the legacy of the past and the deceit of the American Dream. She probably doesn't have many conversations with Billy Idol or Rod Stewart.

However, for such a fulfilled and fulfilling artist, there has been a curious hole in her folio until now. Thirty-three years after making her professional singing debut at The Depression coffee house in Calgary, Canada (under her maiden name of Roberta Joan Anderson), Joni Mitchell finally releases her first compilation albums at the age of almost 53.

In one sense it's strange she waited. Of her 17 albums, it could be argued that the nine studio LPs she recorded between 1968 and 1978 are all marvellous in their own particular ways. Three or four of these (Blue, Court and Spark, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and probably Hejira) are so good that they are approaching the mark where rational appraisal starts to get difficult. And she is alone among 52-year-olds in never having released a great stinking moose of an album. Why, for instance, has there been no box set?

But in another sense it's agreeable (as P.D. James would say) to discover Mitchell's old albums for oneself, one by one, over the course of a year or so. All Mitchell's records are on CD, many at mid-price.

Although an albums act of cool longevity, Joni Mitchell has never been a pop star. She had one Top 20 hit in Britain, Big Yellow Taxi, in 1971. Her joint biggest UK success - like Big Yellow Taxi, it reached Number 11 -was a 1973 cover version of her song This Flight Tonight (off Blue) by Dunfermline hard rock band Nazareth. Yet she was never a heroine to millions at her height.

These compilations-which could hardly be more dissimilar- are designed to reduce a 28-year recording career into two separate CDs: one concentrating on the singles; the other on album tracks, where the real story has been told. Most of the 15 tracks on Hits, therefore, are Joni Mitchell's most familiar and comforting songs (Chelsea Morning, Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock etc), while Misses is her personal selection of LP material from 1971 to 1994.

Hits begins with the only previously unreleased song on either compilation, Urge For Going, which she wrote in the mid-'60s. It was covered by Tom Rush and appears here in lieu of anything from Mitchell's self-titled 1968 debut LP. Over the combined track listing of Hits and Misses, there are many such stark omissions.

Continuing chronologically, Hits devotes its next 11 songs to the years 1969-'74. This welcoming surge of well-loved tunes includes Both Sides Now - an American Top 10 single for Judy Collins in a period (1968) when Mitchell's songs were being sought out and covered by Buffy Saint-Marie and, in England, Fairport Convention - and three tracks from Blue: Carey, California and River.

For Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (with each of whom the passionate Mitchell was romantically linked at one point or another), she wrote Woodstock, the enduring theme tune for a festival she never attended. Her own reading of the song (taken from Ladies Of The Canyon), played on electric piano, is more meandering than CSN&Y's US hit - which was released the same month, April 1970 - and not so enjoyable.

You Turn Me On I'm A Radio, with Graham Nash on harmonica, took her into the American Top 30. On the title track of the parent album, For The Roses, Mitchell was already bemoaning fame - and worrying about depersonalization as a result. This gauche and charmless track appears on Misses, a curious choice, since it must have seemed an immature protest 24 years ago, let alone now.

After Hits has divvied out the great old singles (Raised On Robbery, Help Me and Free Man In Paris - all from Court And Spark - provide the album's most glorious sequence and send you rushing to the original LP), it loses its head completely and races forward to 1982 for Chinese Cafe, and then to 1991 for Come In From The Cold. While these are good songs, their inclusion seems gratuitous, as though someone has remembered that Mitchell didn't retire in 1974. Those disorientating leaps aside, however, Hits does a decent job of compiling Mitchell's jukebox nuggets on one 61 -minute disc.

Misses opts for immediate lunacy. Almost every selection on it is inexplicable, so why not the first four? It starts with two songs from the same 1991 LP, Night Ride Home (Passion Play and Nothing Can Be Done, all fretless basses and opaque sonics), then reverses back to the plasticky acoustic guitar folk of A Case Of You (from 1971), before accelerating towards The Beat Of Black Wings, an expensive display of late-'80s Annie Lennoxisms and Prefab Sproutery.

And it gets worse. She has picked out her anticonglomerate protest songs from the '80s and '9Os, where for every inspiring new colour in the rainbow (such as "Exxon blue") there's a dollop of grey thinking ("bigwig financiers", or the aggravating advertisement slogans on The Reoccuring Dream). Giving houseroom to Sex Kills- it rhymes with "oil spills" - is no way to promote a three decade career; it showcases none of her art. Impossible Dreamer, from 1985, with Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, is much more like it - luscious, in fact - but where are Don't Interrupt The Sorrow, Coyote, Furry Sings The Blues, Edith And The Kingpin and Cotton Avenue? What is Dog Eat Dog doing here? And would chronological order have been too much to ask for?

Misses is a farrago of baffling, decisions and missed opportunities. From the period 1975-1978 -very possibly Joni Mitchell at her creative peak - only two songs are included: one from The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (Harry's House/ Centerpiece), one from Hejira (the title track) and nothing at all from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The Arrangement, from Ladies Of The Canyon, is a reasonable choice - but not 12 songs in, when we're attuned to the lavish production techniques of the '80s and '90s. Misses is an album with no pulse, no point and, sadly, only sporadic appeal.

In her rare interviews, Mitchell has made it clear she mistrusts the frivolities of stardom and reputation, and has long outgrown most of the tags that the media once applied to her (spokeswoman for a generation; Laurel Canyon babe; communal hippy). "I could use a hit," she even admitted to Q 1988. "I gotta sell more records just to break even."

No doubt Hits will give her that hit. But it's a shame that Misses - which should have been the more interesting of the two by far - is so erratic and self-negating. We'll have to do our own DIY compliation tapes for now.

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (11971)


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