NOT AN UNCHEERFUL PERSON: The world is "a massive mess," but Mitchell's melodies still soar
Photo © Gregory Heisler
Joni Mitchell's new album covers a wide emotional spectrum
It has been 23 years since Joni Mitchell released BLUE, a lapidary album that used vivid poetry and sun-washed melodies to enrich the palette of contemporary folk music. Now and then, over time, Mitchell's commercial fortunes have stalled, but her determination has never wavered. Her forays into jazz (MINGUS, THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS) cost her some fans but cemented her reputation as a provocative innovator, and by 1985 her lyrics had taken on an increasingly political bite.
TURBULENT INDIGO, her first album in three years, is steeped in an even deeper shade of BLUE. The hallmarks of Mitchell's signature sound are abundantly evident - the crystalline arrangements; the unorthodox guitar tunings; the fluid, bittersweet melodies. Her voice, which has taken on a smoky flavor, can still soar through clouds of bass and piano. There are flashes of wry humor - as in her depiction of a comically inept Lothario in YVETTE IN ENGLISH.
At the same time, TURBULENT INDIGO is weighted heavily with the conviction that the world has snapped its moorings. Moody and mordant, its 10 songs evoke smog-choked vistas, the scourge of AIDS and the bloodless wounds of love - all presented as symptoms of a universal malaise. On SEX KILLS, sirens echo ominously behind an insistent beat as Mitchell sings, "The ulcerated ozone/These tumors of the skin/This hostile sun beatin' down on/This massive mess we're in!...And sex sells everything/And sex kills." The album title, Mitchell says, "refers to the turbulent blues of this warring, frenzied climate that we live in, riddled with plagues and wars and divisionalism." This sense of chaos struck home with the dissolution of her marriage to bassist Larry Klein, who, despite their separation, co-produced and played on the album. "It didn't color the record," she says of the breakup,"even though it got a little tense in the studio at times."
Mitchell is less forthcoming about the inspiration for NOT TO BLAME, a song about spousal abuse that seems to allude to the well-publicized domestic troubles of West Coast rocker Jackson Browne and actress Daryl Hannah. "It's not about anyone specific," she insists. "It's about the phenomenon of the battered woman at this time."
Though her lyrics are almost unrelievedly dark, Mitchell maintains that her music is not. "I'm not an uncheerful person. The melodies I love have a wide emotional spectrum; you have to be quite cheerful to face these themes."
She also believes society shows a willingness to face up to its predicament. "People don't have their heads in the sand anymore," she says. "The general populace seems to realize we're in the middle of a mess and that it can be somewhat comforting to hear a description of that mess put to beautiful music." By that difficult measure, TURBULENT INDIGO is indeed somewhat comforting.