No matter how many times I've listened to her albums (or better yet, "experienced" her albums) and hummed her many tunes, one question has always lingered in my mind: How could an introverted, guitar playing, singer/songwriter from Alberta, with her long, stringy, blonde locks, and shy but radiant toothy grin make such a tremendous impact upon so many different artists?
Through her song "Chelsea Morning," Bill Clinton came up with the name for his daughter. Her 1974 album Court and Spark served as "a Bible" for a teenage Madonna. For the artist formerly known as Prince, she helped to teach him the "color" of songwriting. (He even dedicated his 1980 "Dirty Mind" album to her.) One of her signature songs, "Big Yellow Taxi" was remixed for the "Friends" soundtrack. She served as a prime influence for Seal, and even recorded two duets with him. Most importantly, she paved the way for an incredibly diverse list of female singer/songwriters such as Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, Annie Lennox, The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Cyndi Lauper, and Courtney Love.
The artist, of course is Joni Mitchell, whose new release, Hits - a greatest hits collection that coincides with Misses, a collection of personal favorites that failed to generate commercial success. It encapsulates her genre bending work from 1967 to 1994. Hits is, by no means, a definitive compilation. Yes, the album features all her signature gems (the ones that easy-listening radio, DMX, and greeting cards take a particular fancy to), but anyone who really appreciates her will tend to single out those quirky, more personal album tracks that more successfully touch a raw, romantic nerve. I would especially like to have seen the track "Lesson in Survival" with its simple, yet deliciously candid view of a relationship on the rocks (Maybe it's a paranoia, maybe it's sensitivity, your friends protect you, scrutinize me...).
Nevertheless, Hits manages to offer an intriguing overview of a prolific musical legacy. The earlier tracks from the late sixties and early seventies show Mitchell as the wide blue-eyed folk songbird with the honeyed, flutey soprano, and the sweet, mellifluous melodies and colorful metaphorically laden-lyrics. ("The sun poured in like butterscotch, and stuck to all my senses".) But even when she verged on being slightly coy and whiny, Mitchell's thoughtful deliveries could always capture the wistful melancholy of her lyrics (particularly in "The Circle Game," when she croons "We're captive on the carousel of time/ We can't return, we can only look/ Behind from where we came/ and go round and round in the Circle Game.") She uses her then-soprano voice to produce a striking effect at the end of "Woodstock", when she piercingly wails with the despair and angst of someone finally defeated by her oppressive environment.
With the release of her critically praised (and most commercially successful album) Court and Spark, Mitchell established herself as the quintessential pop/rock/jazz/folk Muse, with deeper, sexier vocals and wiser insights on how the longing for love conflicts with the ever-growing need for independence. On "Help Me" - her sole Top Ten hit - she proclaims, "you're a rambler and a gambler and a sweet talkin' ladies man/ and you love your loving/ But not like you love your freedom."
By the eighties, however, those sweet, pitch-pure vocals gave way to a more acidy, cigarette-stained delivery that wasn't as pleasant, but had a soulfulness of its own. And it was this newfound roughness in her voice that gave a particular poignancy to her 1982 ballad "Chinese Cafe/ Unchained Melody" (yes, the Righteous Brothers' one), which deals with the sad reality that "nothin' lasts for long," and how the things that mean the most to you in youth eventually are destroyed somehow as time wears on. And when she achingly sings, "God speed your love to me," she gives it a hardened vulnerability that is unlike anything she's ever done.
Perhaps what has made Joni Mitchell's confessional works endure is that she consistently pushed to break through, searching for what we want and what we miss when facing life, love, and loss. A reflection of the common thread found in most of her works can be best summed up in song, "Both Sides Now". "I've looked at life from both sides now/ From win and lose and still somehow/ It's life's illusions I recall/ I really don't know life at all."
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