As the great songwriter celebrates her birthday, Alex Macpherson praises the shrewd eye that takes her work beyond conventional songcraft and on to a higher plane
When it comes to confidence in one's own talents, few can touch Joni Mitchell. When asked about a new generation of folk singers in 1990, she responded: "I don't hear much there, frankly. When it comes to knowing where to put the chords, how to tell a story and how to build to a chorus, most of them can't touch me."
There was an irony to her entirely justified ego, though. It is her insistence on undercutting truisms and mythologies that makes her commentary so biting and her confessionals so piercing. What compels BLUE, Mitchell's 1971 masterpiece, is not so much raw honesty as the scientific precision with which she dissects herself — setting what she wants to believe against what she actually believes. It's fitting that the album ends in a cynic's stalemate: on The Last Time I Saw Richard, she crafts a conversation in which the narrator and her former friend are both correct about each other and also lying to themselves.
Trading on cynicism makes some artists stagnate in self-congratulation, but it seemed to make Mitchell ever more restless. In 1969, she mocked an acquaintance's mystic pretensions on Roses Blue in the guise of the precise ersatz folk exotica she found laughable; over the next few years, she observed hippy culture and artists' parties from the corner of the room and found them wanting. Her eye for hypocrisy — and her willingness not to exempt herself — reached its apex on my personal favourite of her albums, 1975's THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS. Here, she exploded the myth of the privileged artist slumming it in poverty on The Boho Dance, while puncturing bourgeois aspiration on the title track and Harry's House/Centerpiece. The invitingly decadent music of the latter is just as significant, though: Mitchell was never blind to the cynic's desire to succumb to idealism — and at times, her music implies that her inability not to see through bullshit is more of a curse than a blessing.
Perhaps this why, during her artistic prime, she ploughed through such a variety of styles in an astonishingly short period. In 1969, she was making lyrically complex but musically straightforward folk. Just six years later, after she had moved rapidly through stark confessionalism on BLUE and lushly arranged soft rock on COURT AND SPARK, THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS, found her in total mastery of an aesthetic that encompassed jazz, African drums, ARP synths and a whole host of uncategorisable details. One year later, HEJIRA saw her ascend beyond conventional songcraft on to a higher plane.
Of her three tours de force, BLUE is a masterpiece for resonating deeply in the darkest of hours, and THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS one for its intelligence and breadth. But HEJIRA is the one that simultaneously intimidates you and feels like art that will take an entire lifetime to unpack. In retrospect, it's obvious that Mitchell's imperious phase ended here. HEJIRA's closer, Refuge Of The Roads, leaves us with Mitchell as a directionless, insignificant figure in a highway restroom, finally as lost as she always told us that she felt.
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