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Songs of experience Print-ready version

Joni Mitchell grapples with middle-age blues

by Nicholas Jennings
Maclean's (Magazine)
April 15, 1991
Original article: PDF

Joni Mitchell grew up in public, baring her emotions in stark, confessional songs that made her famous around the world. It was a style of songwriting that served the Alberta-born artist well, until the mid-1970s, when her adventurous personality led her to jazz and a less intimate approach to lyrics. Then, with her 1985 album, Dog Eat Dog, and the subsequent 1988 release, Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, her songs became topical, dealing with subjects as diverse as war, Indian land claims and rightwing evangelism. But the change produced mixed results, especially when poetics gave way to polemics. Now, Mitchell has made a welcome return to her roots, in both a musical and a personal sense. Her latest album, Night Ride Home, features some of her most autobiographical songs in years, many of them performed on acoustic guitar or piano and with little other instrumentation. They reveal that Mitchell, at 47, is grappling with age. While she is not exactly experiencing a mid-life crisis, she is clearly wistful for earlier times.

Several songs reflect Mitchell's youth in Saskatoon. In Come in from the Cold, she recaptures the magic of a high-school dance when "a touch of our fingers... could make our circuitry explode." And in Ray's Dad's Cadillac, she conjures up memories of evenings spent with "rock 'n' roll in the dashboard" and "romance in the back." But Mitchell's childhood memories are not all sweetly nostalgic: in Cherokee Louise, a friend is sexually abused by her foster father.

Other songs portray Mitchell in the present, married to Larry Klein, her bassist and coproducer on the new album. One, the title track, reflects her obvious marital contentment, while another, Nothing Can Be Done, describes some troubled times. In other compositions, Mitchell seems to yearn for the freedom of youth. In The Only Joy in Town, a jazz-flavored number, she admires a "Botticelli black boy," and sings of how there was a time when she would have followed him. Faced with the inevitability of growing old, Mitchell has returned to the candid songs of romantic longing that were her strength in younger days.

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