Joni Mitchell, TURBULENT INDIGO (Reprise)
Joni Mitchell is the voice that stayed up with you at night in 1972 while you suffered for love. Her first half-dozen albums are filled with the angst of impossible crushes on unavailable people, the background music for a generation of emerging lesbians and gay men. Now her swooping, trilling voice has dropped, and her earlies fans have all grown up—and some of them have died. The delicate, wistful, straight-from-my-veins-to-yours longing that Mitchell sang about in songs such as California (from the aptly titled BLUE) has been replaced over time by a survivor's sense of isolation and regret. Her new album, TURBULENT INDIGO, is a response to the adolescent yearning she rendered so lovingly in BLUE. Twenty-five years later her tenderness has hardened into rage.
"Sex sells everything, and sex kills," Mitchell sings in Sex Kills, a song dictated from her car as she drives the freeways of Los Angeles, reading vanity license plates and roadside advertisements. This is post-Northridge earthquake, post-Rodney King, post-O.J. Simpson Southern California. It is not the flower-power paradise of 1971 where, as she sings in California, "I can see the folks I dig," This is Joan Didion's California, lacking history, squinting into the sun, struggling to find a center. The hissing sound of the freeway is never far in the back-ground as Mitchell lets her mind wander over the landscape of the past two decades, evoking all the recent horrors: AIDS, wife battering, riots, the media circus, man's inhumanity to man.
Mitchell can be earnest without being sentimental, a rare gift. "One day you're too young, then you're in your prime / Then you're looking back at the hands of time," she sings in How Do You Stop, echoing the famous refrain from Circle Game: "We're captured on a carousel of time." Musically lush and lyrically terse, her new songs are painfully observed, scarred with the perspective of slow time. "Doctors pills give you brand new ills / And the bills bury you like an avalanche," she sings in Sex Kills, adding simply, "Everyone hates everyone." In How Do You Stop she warns, "You choose, and you lose if you hesitate," lamenting what is unavoidable—that time passes, that dreams evaporate, that you lose things.
But there is at least Mitchell's voice. It is no longer the voice of teenage loneliness and despair. It is both richer and harsher, more penetrating and more caressing. It softens her acid perceptions and makes them somehow bearable. If Bonnie Raitt were darker, if Courtney Love were more humane, if Bob Dylan were still worth listening to, if we turned off O.J. Simpson long enough to hear the noise we're making, we would find out that we still sound like Joni Mitchell. Not exactly lost and alone, but certainly baffled and embittered and struggling valiantly to make sense.
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