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The last few years have not, one senses, been happy ones for Joni Mitchell. Suffering from Morgellons Syndrome, a rare skin condition, she has all but abandoned music altogether. She has not performed in more than ten years, and not released an album since the stately and haunting Shine, five years ago - a record of melancholic reflections on the environment and mankind's propensity for self-destruction. Once a force of life, Mitchell now seems distinctly at odds with the world.
This release, then, a collection of her first ten studio albums, recorded between 1968 and 1977, seems particularly timely. It's a reminder of Mitchell's musical genius - and I don't use the word lightly - and an affirmation of her status as unquestionably the greatest female singer-songwriter in popular music, as major a figure in her own way as Bob Dylan.
We're treading on dangerous ground here. Mitchell has sometimes been described as "the female Dylan" - prompting her retort "why doesn't anybody ever call Dylan the male Joni Mitchell?" And Bob is clearly a sore point. In her last interview, given to the Los Angeles Times in 2010, she lambasted Dylan as "a plagiarist" and "a fake". "We are like night and day, he and I," she said. "Everything about Bob is a deception." Ouch!
Leaving the question of authenticity aside (and Mitchell's comments surely say more about her cantankerousness than they do about Dylan's integrity), any stylistic comparison between the two is pretty meaningless, beginning - and ending - with the fact that both began their careers labouring under the description of folk artists.
But what they do share is an arresting narrative to their lives which has nourished and illuminated their work. Dylan's story is written in stone: the Minnesota childhood; hitchhiking across America on a pilgrimage to meet his hero Woody Guthrie; his apprenticeship in the coffee-houses of New York; his alignment with the civil rights movement; "the voice of a generation"; Newport, the motorcycle crash. And so on.
Mitchell's narrative is no less beguiling. The childhood in the Canadian prairie town of Saskatoon; her apprenticeship in the coffee houses of Toronto; an early pregnancy, giving up for adoption the daughter that she felt unable to care for her herself; the migration to California, and her ascent to become the reigning queen of the Laurel Canyon - arguably the first, and certainly the most candid, of the confessional singer-songwriters of the era.
While it was true that Mitchell (winner of eight Grammys in all) sang in a folk idiom she was never a folk singer in the way that Joan Baez defined the type - reviving old ballads or singing songs for to fortify the barricades of political protest.
Form the outset, Mitchell was a writer as well as a performer, her earliest songs studies of lovelorn introspection.
Listened to now, her debut album Song to a Seagull (1968) and her second album Clouds, released the following year, are most interesting as establishing the bedrock of her strengths: the astonishing purity of her voice - the glissando vocals sliding sweetly up and down the scale - her signature open-tuned guitar playing, and her facility with melody - most vividly on display in Clouds best known songs, Chelsea Morning and Both Sides Now, a song suffused with the bittersweet combination of hope and regret that would become one of her lyrical hallmarks.
Mitchell seemed to epitomise a particular type: the wheaten hair, the corn-flower-blue eyes, the toothy smile - there was no more fragrant flower-child. But the air of sweet, innocent beguilement was always deceptive. Amply armed with what she herself once described as "her great big ego", Mitchell always had a strong sense of herself, and an absolutely clear idea of her own abilities, and of her destiny (giving a child up for adoption to follow your artistic calling displays a particular kind of determination).
No plaything of the music industry - as so many women performers of the day had no other choice but to be - she was uncompromising in shaping her music and her career.
By the time of her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970) Mitchell had begun composing songs on a piano, which was to become her dominant instrument over the next few years, and also to experiment with denser, more textured arrangements, not least the deployment of dense, multi-tracked wordless harmonies, notably on Woodstock, the song that in her version, and the CSNY cover version, came to define all the idealism of the late 60s hippie movement - "We are stardust, we are golden" - notwithstanding the fact Mitchell herself did not actually attend the festival.
Mitchell once described the abiding lyrical preoccupation of her early albums as "what is love, where is love - the anatomy of the crime". For Mitchell this would often be expressed in the struggle between a wish for independence and the acknowledgement of her weakness in the face of desire, and the tension between domesticity and freedom. As she sings in Let the Wind Carry Me, on her fifth album For The Roses (1972): "Sometimes I get that feeling/And I want to settle/And raise a child up with somebody/But it passes like the summer/I'm a wild seed again/Let the wind carry me."
In song after song, Mitchell is falling hopelessly in love - usually with the wrong man - then issuing warnings of how love entraps and inhibits. Listen to the two greatest songs on Blue - arguably the two most enduring and beloved songs of Mitchell's entire canon: the achingly romantic A Case of You ("I could drink a case of you/and still be on my feet") and The Last Time I Saw The Richard - surely among the most poignant songs about romantic disillusionment ever written, in which a former lover's fate is delineated with a devastating precision. "Richard got married to a figure skater/And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator/And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on/And all the house lights left up bright."
Mitchell's life seemed to be an open book, which invited the listener to read between the lines. Willie is obviously about Graham Nash, and the Free Man in Paris was David Geffen. But is Rainy Night House really about Leonard Cohen?
Nobody captured the changing emotional temper of the times, its solipsism, and its hedonism, more perceptively than she did, nor viewed it with a beadier or more sorrowful eye. "Acid, booze, and ass/Needles, guns, and grass", she sang on Blue. "Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go/Well I don't think so ..." (The song was said to be about her friend, the folk-singer David Blue, who struggled with heroin addiction, although Mitchell always denied it).
"All this talk about holiness now", she sings to a lover on the song Woman of Heart and Mind on the album For The Roses. "It must be the start of the latest style/Is it all books and words/Or do you really feel it?/Do you really laugh?/Do you really care?/Do you really smile/When you smile?" The same lover, presumably, whom she cautions in Lesson In Survival from the same album, "Guru books, the Bible/Only a reminder/That you're just not good enough/You need to believe in something."
For The Roses (1972) is a greatly underrated album. It fell between Mitchell's two biggest selling records, Blue and Court and Spark (1974), but it was a significant milestone in her musical development, both in terms of its melodic sophistication and its move towards the spacious, jazzier arrangements that would reach their fruition in The Hissing of Summer Lawns - gorgeous, high-sheen soundscapes that perfectly complement the album's lyrical themes of anomie and disillusionment among the Californian haute-bourgeoisie.
"My first four albums," Mitchell once explained, "covered the usual youth problems - looking for love in all the wrong places - while the next five are basically about being in your 30s. Things start losing their profundity; in middle-late age, you enter a tragedian period, realising that the human animal isn't changing for the better."
In the album's title song, a woman trapped in a stale marriage settles for compromise, in a ranch on the hill with "a roomful of Chippendale/That nobody sits in." While the album's piece de resistance, Harry's House/Centrepiece, describes another marriage on the rocks (or perhaps the same one?) and the shallowness of a materialist society with acidic precision - "Battalions of paper-minded males/Talking commodities and sales/While at home their paper wives/And paper kids/Paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid."
Is there a more brilliant phrasemaker in popular music than Joni Mitchell? You could pan her songs forever and still keep coming up with gold-dust (or perhaps stardust). "We all come and go unknown", she sings in the title song of Hejira (1976) "Each so deep and superficial/Between the forceps and the stone". Or, from Coyote on the same album, the slyly lascivious description of a boyfriend's roving eye - "Coyote's in the coffee shop/ He's staring a hole in his scrambled eggs/ He picks up my scent on his fingers/ While he's watching the waitress's legs."
Mitchell wrote the songs for Hejira on a road journey by herself - "The sweet loneliness of solitary travel", as she would put it, a mental state that usually fosters reflections on what's been lost. In the beautiful Amelia she juxtaposes the fate of the aviator Amelia Earhart, who disappeared mysteriously while flying over the Pacific in 1937, with her own doomed attempts to find love. "Maybe I've never really loved/I guess that is the truth/I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude/And looking down on everything/I crashed into his arms/Amelia, it was just a false alarm."
The joyous tumbling into love of Help Me or A Case of You has long gone, although, as she sings in Hejira, "Still somehow the slightest touch of a stranger, Can set up trembling in my bones."
If Mitchell's early albums, were figurative watercolours and pastels, by the time of Hejira, and her next album, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (1977), the work was becoming increasingly abstract - vivid splashes of colours, shaped by Mitchell's free-flowing chord changes and Jaco Pastorius's rubbery fretless bass.
To many who had followed her faithfully from the very beginning, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter marked a farewell - too obtuse, too musically challenging (and too much Pastorius, pushed so far forward in the mix his bass-playing starts nagging like a morsel of food trapped behind a tooth). Where were the melodies? Where was the laughter? Where were the tears? Mingus (1979), the last album to be included here, would do nothing to bring back the disaffected. A collaboration with, and tribute to Charles Mingus, recorded in the months before his death, it was what Mitchell had been edging towards for five years or more - a fully fledged jazz album. It would be her worse-selling album ever. "At least," she would note wryly, "at least it gave me a taste of jazz obscurity."
Mitchell would go on to write more marvellous songs and to make more enjoyable albums, enjoying a remarkable resurgence of popular success and critical acclaim with Turbulent Indigo (1994). But increasingly her songs would deal not with the quixotic state of the heart, but with the parlous state of the world, culminating with the mournful Shine.
"I guess I should be glad to be alive/But we have poisoned everything, oblivious to it all", she sings in Bad Dreams. "The cell phone zombies babble/Through the shopping malls/While condors fall from Indian skies/Whales beach and die in sand ..."
It's true, of course. But still one turns back, with a mixture of sentimental longing and relief, to A Case of You.
Shine was reportedly the first of a two album deal. We wait to see if the second materialises. I hope it does, but I fear it won't. In the meantime, this anthology provides a marvellous opportunity to revisit Mitchell in her glorious prime. Indispensable.
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