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Joni Mitchell The Studio Albums 1968-1979   Print

by Jessica Hopper
Pitchfork Media
November 9, 2012

[View set at Amazon]

Joni Mitchell once called fame "a glamorous misunderstanding." As America's finest living Canadian songwriter (tied with Neil Young), few musicians have understood its nature so well. In the 1960s and 70s, Mitchell was Mary Magdalene to Dylan's folk-rock messiah, making music that was bittersweet and relatable, carrying what Dylan begat even further. Her work helped birth a new idiom that was personal and poetic, creating a new space for songs that made artistic statements, unbound by cliché and tradition. Such was the strength of her music that Mitchell's lyrics didn't have to make sense. But they did, particularly to women.

Mitchell's first 10 studio albums, cut during an 11-year span, have been gathered in this import box set. During this run, Mitchell charted one of the most solid career arcs in contemporary music that then detoured into one of the strangest, following her muse into places that very nearly cost her career and exhausted her fanbase's patience. Throughout, she was confident and unrepentant in her vision, in an era where that kind of ego was unbefitting a woman, even if she did have the gold albums and Grammys™ to back it up.

This is a basic set-- no frills, just all the albums' original layouts reproduced in envelope sleeves, the fonts so tiny only mice could read them. There are no extras, outtakes or re-anythinged. But taking these 10 records in a row, chronologically, it is a striking reminder no single artist has had a run like Joni (even her acolyte Prince only got to seven albums before he started to fall off). Mitchell was pop's first female auteur, an innovator of singular talent, whose influence was vast, immediate (see: Led Zeppelin's "Going to California") and long lasting (Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent, Taylor Swift's kiss'n'tell cottage industry).

Mitchell was "discovered" c. 1968 when ex-Byrd David Crosby pulled up in a sailboat outside the Florida club she was playing and took her to L.A. At the time, folk was out of fashion yet Mitchell managed to pull down an unprecedented major label deal for a girl and her guitar: total and complete artistic freedom, with the caveat that Crosby would produce her first album. It was rare for a woman to be writing and recording her own material at the time, let alone to be an unaccompanied solo act. Though Mitchell's debut, Song to a Seagull, was a heavy precedent for the era it's a harder listen now, the fin de siècle earth-mama lyrics playing strange against the stilted, formal musical settings. The delicate album suffers under Crosby's intrusive production; Mitchell would self-produce from then on.

Clouds (1969) is the introduction to Mitchell's real deal, shaking folk tradition and giving off a little humor and spirit. The album sounds casual. Lyrically, she was transitioning from the era's de facto hippie sensualism (colors! the weather! vibes!) to the classically prosodic style (Keats! Cohen!) she'd become known for. The album's biggest signs of life are two of her most famous songs-- the kicky "Chelsea Morning", which is about as straightforward as Mitchell ever got, and "Both Sides Now". Though she'd known burden and heartache plenty by her still-tender age (she'd borne a child alone and in secret after dropping out of art school and married singer Chuck Mitchell in order to make a family; he changed his mind a month later and she put the baby up for adoption) she sounds a bit too young and chipper to be singing about disillusionment. Still, Clouds was a landmark, and she landed a Grammy for Best Folk Performance.

Ladies of the Canyon from 1970 is Mitchell's most accessible album and it introduces her earnest folk-pop style. Her voice is newly elastic and expressive, and it's the first record where she sounds like she might actually be fun to hang out with. Ladies also features her generation-defining "Woodstock", "The Circle Game" (Mitchell's answer back to Neil Young's nostalgic "Sugar Mountain"), and her blustery gentrification sing-along, "Big Yellow Taxi". All were hippie-era sing-along staples; it hardly bears remarking that these songs are some of Mitchell's corniest.

The genius of Ladies is often circumscribed by Mitchell's proximity to CSNY; the vocal arrangement and production invariably propped to Crosby's influence, "Woodstock" supposedly inspired by Nash's recounting of the event (she wrote it before he'd even returned from the festival). If Ladies does bear the mark of CSNY, it's to the album's detriment. The fruits of the Nash/Mitchell romance-- his gee-whiz domestic ode, "Our House" and Ladies' "Willy"-- are saccharine at best. Their subsequent break up would inspire much more potent work-- Neil Young's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and Mitchell's follow-up.

About that follow-up: 1971's Blue is possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made. After Mitchell's relationship with Nash dissolved, she headed to Europe to lose the tether of her fame, eventually taking exile in a cave on the Greek island Crete. The trip would inspire the how-Joni-got-her-groove-back ditties "Carey" and "California". The album is suffused with melancholy for all that is missing: her daughter ("Little Green"), innocence ("The Last Time I Saw Richard"), and connection ("All I Want"). Mitchell bleeds diffidence and highlights it with spare notes plucked out on her Appalachian dulcimer. While her pals Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Laura Nyro were also pushing the singer-songwriter genre forward, none of them managed to stride the distance that Mitchell did here in a single album.

"Will you take me as I am/ Strung out on another man?" Mitchell pleads on "California". She was (in)famously strung out on other talents that were as mercurial as hers, fueling constant speculation as to whether this song was about Leonard Cohen, or that one about James Taylor or Nash or that puerile heartbreaker Jackson Browne. The year Mitchell issued Blue, an album that would be a landmark in any artist's career, Rolling Stone named her "Old Lady of the Year," a dismissal effectively saying her import was as a girlfriend or muse to the men around her more than as an artist in her own right. Worse still, they called her "Queen of El Lay," and offered a diagram of her supposed affairs and conquests. She'd made the best album of her career and in exchange she got slut-shamed in the biggest music magazine in America.

Mitchell retired to her homestead in Canada and returned sounding confident for 1972's For the Roses. Up until Roses she'd kept things minimal, here she stacked multi-tracks of impossible vocals harmonies, mimicking a horn section ("Let the Wind Carry Me") or interpolating and dueling with jazzer sideman Tom Scott's riffing woodwinds. Mitchell's vocals, fluttering unpredictably and with stunning control between the bottom of her range and the top of her crystalline contralto, were given a new stop; her heavy smoking had given her a heretofore non-existent midrange. There's really no singing along with Roses-- which is a fabulous fuck-you for a pop artist.

Though part of the reason that she'd retired from performing in 1969 was to avoid the default of writing about the myopic rock'n'roll life, Roses' standout track, "Blonde in the Bleachers", shows that she may have understood it better than any of the boys; it is one of the best songs ever written about the rules and (gender) roles of the road. "It seems like you've got to give up/ Such a piece of your soul /When you give up the chase," she sings, about finding identity and meaning in who you fuck. Freedom is an evergreen subject for Mitchell, but "Blonde in the Bleachers" gets beyond the thrill in partaking of what-- or, rather, who-- is offered up, backstage. The quiet story here is the ebbing power of a woman once she's been conquered.

Though Mitchell was criticized for not making blatantly feminist or political (read: sloganeering) albums, her work was always tacitly so. Her songs spotlight the unspoken roles of women ("Barandgrill"), who they were unrelated to men; she gave them names and precise details. There is hardly a more feminist topic than striving for a freedom that life and love has never allowed you. On "Woman of Heart and Mind", it's hard to tell whether she is mocking herself or the man she is singing to (or both): "Push your papers/ Win your medals/ Fuck your strangers/ Don't it leave you on the empty side /I'm looking for affection and respect." On Roses, Mitchell sounds like a woman who's had enough of everyone else's shit, an attitude that certainly put her in line with the libbers.

Her 1974 commercial break-out, Court and Spark, found her backed by first-call jazz session cats L.A. Express. It was her official severance from folk music. Court is her most pop album and gave her three chart hits, going gold five weeks after its release. Mitchell's production features heavy and sudden multi-tracked swells of her voice that spike melodies like a choir of accusing angels and mimic strings and horns. Her arrangement on "Down to You" (aided by Express bandleader Tom Scott) is stunning in its complexity, yet it never shakes you; it is still utterly a pop song.

Now six albums deep on the topic of love and loss, Court has a marked cynicism. It's a grown up album about arriving at the intractable issues of adult love. "Help Me", which was Mitchell's only top 10 hit, is reluctant about romance; she's "hoping for the future/ And worrying about the past." The refrain is pocked by the dawnlight realizations of that post-free love era: "We love our lovin'/ But not like we love our freedom." For the largeness of her band (which included Joe Sample of the Crusaders, and Larry Carlton, soon to be of every memorable Steely Dan guitar solo) they are nimble throughout; their finesse suited her own.

To explain how and what happened next in Mitchell's career-- how much her The Hissing of Summer Lawns was viewed as not a stylistic departure but a betrayal-- we must first look at the run up. While promoting Court, what could easily be defined as the commercial and artistic high-water mark of her career, Mitchell went to go see Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour and wound up joining. At the time, she was a peer of Dylan, commercially and as a songwriter, she was also tight with tour member Robbie Robertson of the Band. She had a song in the Billboard Top 10-- and she was opening. When Mitchell recounts this in later interviews, she talks about how being on the tour was a matter of constantly having to subvert her ego to the men around her.

At this same time, many of her peers were headed further toward the mainstream, towards syncopation, towards rock, towards retro revivalism. Mitchell saw there was not much of a place for her amongst the new talents and the Peter Pan-ing crew she came up with, as a woman in her early 30s, and she saw jazz as a genre that would allow her to age gracefully and expand as an artist-- and so there she went. She was trying to find or develop a place to belong.

Through all of this she arrived at Hissing of Summer Lawns.

The 1975 album marks Mitchell's official departure from the mainstream, her embarking upon her jazzbo journey. It's the album of an artist absolutely assured of herself, and it's addressed to anyone who might not consider her a serious musician, who believed all she could do was confess her heartache. Though it doesn't have the rhapsodic rep as Blue, it's unquestionably one of Mitchell's finest albums, and it is certainly her most timeless.

It opens easy enough with "In France They Kiss on Main Street"-- a soft, linear move from Court. What follows is jarring if you were expecting more of the same: "The Jungle Line" runs over a distorting sample of the Royal Drummers of Burundi tribal pounding and chanting. Mitchell going from husky to her enunciation so precise about "the mathematic circuits of the modern nights," the long, low whirring of a Moog running the melody line under Mitchell's acoustic strumming. The rest of the record is dark, tense, and lilts unapologetically toward something softer and more ornate than jazz fusion (no more than the later Steely Dan records it predated) with Mitchell singing observationally, about the place of women in the world, about the trade-offs they make for power and freedom.

Mitchell and women of her generation had been brought up with the idea that marriage to a man who took care of them would fulfill them entirely and that ambitions beyond that were frivolous. The album is a reckoning reflective of culture at the time; Hissing is an album of women trying to find their real selves in a world that had groomed them for quiet obeisance to men. On "Harry's House" Mitchell sings of a curdling domestic scene, of wives who "paper the walls to keep their gut reactions hid." The song dovetails into the standard "Centerpiece", which she sings in a voice not her own, playacting with this ultra-feminine throwback voice, creating a critical distance when she sings the lines: "I'm building all my dreams around you/ Our happiness will never cease/ 'Cause nothing's any good without you/ Baby you're my centerpiece." And on the subtlety devastating "Sweet Bird", she sings of women wielding power through beauty and youth, and what is lost and gained in that bargaining: "Power ideals and beauty/ Fading in everyone's hand" and "Calendars of our lives/ Circled with compromise."

Mitchell had never made a record that wasn't bigger than the one before and was shocked that her fans and many critics saw her new sound as an abandonment and misguided move, respectively. Reviewers chastised her for her ego. While the album went gold and brought her a Grammy nod, as her 1974 live album Miles of Aisles attests (a wonky fiasco, skip it) there were still plenty of people shouting for "Big Yellow Taxi". But that Joni didn't live here anymore. Hissing was proof. The era of Mitchell doing no wrong was over and if her audience couldn't hang, she wasn't about to do anything to reel them back in.

The two albums that followed are where Mitchell went off the grid. Hejira, from 1976, was written while driving alone from Maine to L.A. and is a meditation on the value and melancholy of being alone, her guitar imitating the rhythms and expanse of the road. In spots it's as emotionally bare as Blue. It's a real grown woman album and may not make tremendous sense to anyone under 30.

Musically, Mitchell says she was trying to see how far she could get from traditional rhythm; the songs are long and lovely, burbling and unspooling. Whether or not you feel this era of Mitchell is unfairly maligned depends on how you feel about Jaco Pastorious and his fretless bass and its many, many notes fardling way up high in the mix. His playing lends a darkly cinematic feeling to the album, but in the decades since his trademark sound and style have been taken to such unpleasant extremes by jam and light jazz bands, it's understandable to experience a visceral revulsion.

Inspired by the rhythms of Brazilian music, Mitchell issued the experimental double-album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter in '77. Her experiments went further than just musical; she appears in brownface and an afro wig as a man on the cover. Less commented on is her in "injun" costume on the back, palm raised, a bubble above her head reads "How!" (Her cringe-inducing arguments about it later on included statements about how she has a "black man's soul"). The album is solidly jazz-fusion, indulgent in length with still plenty of Jaco-dominance. But! there is reward in the album's centerpiece, if you can make it that far: The 16-minute "Paprika Plains" is a freakout of a song suite, inspired in part by a conversation with prickly ol' Bob Dylan. Even if you cannot abide by the album, we must be grateful for it, as it is Bjork's #1 favorite album and source of inspiration. The last piece in the box, Mingus, her 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus before his death makes her seem like the jazz dilettante that people accused her of being. The ultimate result doesn't serve either of their legacies particularly well.

Though Mitchell's weird escapade through pop doesn't end where the box set does, she never recaptured the thread of popular imagination. Her 80s albums, like many of her hippie-era peers', were overbearing and scolding and featured awkward embraces of technology. She retired for long stretches to focus on her painting. Her last good record was 2000's Both Sides Now, where, her range ravaged by decades of smoking, she sings the definitive version of the titular song that launched her career and finally sounds like she's seen enough to know.

 

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