I have been listening passionately to Joni Mitchell for over 30 years now, and it's sad to think that her new album, Travelogue, released next week, may well be her last. The great Canadian troubadour is 59 this month, and the legacy of childhood polio, as well as decades of chain smoking, have taken their toll. She rarely appears live nowadays, and publicly knocks the brutalities of the rock-and-roll machine with an abandon which suggests that she counts herself out of the loop, if not the competition.
More significantly, she believes she has written pretty much all she wants to write and that she was never destined for music anyway - "I'm a painter who got side tracked," she asserted in a recent interview. To dramatise this claim, the cover of her 1995 album, "Turbulent Indigo", is a parody of a Van Gogh self-portrait, with her own face substituted for Vincent's.
Her detractors sneer at such folie de grandeur, and there's no doubt that Joni has a high opinion of herself. (Neitzche is among her favourite authors.) She fan be hoity-toity with those she despises, and has unhesitatingly scorned the ersatz chanteuses, from Madonna downwards, who have attempted to pay her pathetic tribute. You can understand her irritation - her jealousy even. Joni has not sold out. Joni is not manufactured. "Show my tits? Grab my crotch t's not my world, she roared, when asked why she was thinking of bowing out. Yes Joni can call herself an artist - she's been true to herself, and paid the price for her integrity.
Travelogue is a fitting farewell to a wonderful career. Like her previous album, Both Sides Now, it's a retrospective. As her former husband and constant collaborator, Larry Klein explains in a sleeve note, this is "not a 'Greatest Hits with Orchestra' type of record". It aims higher than that, reinterpreting a range of her songs through a voice that has gravitated from a reedy soprano to a warm contralto and a sensibility that has moved from its roots in folk and beatnik culture, via jazz, world music and fusion, to end up in the warm embrace of symphonic wind, strings and brass.
The tracks include reworkings of The Circle Game and Woodstock, two of the few songs of hers that have made any inroad on the charts. I still prefer them in their simpler original 1970 form on Ladies of the Canyon; there they have an emotional spontaneity that the older Joni has lost, and now you feel that she's just doodling over them. Other songs from the earlier albums - Blue, For the Roses, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira - are more coherently jazzed up, with shorter phrases, sharper syncopation and more subtle colouring.
I've always had trouble with Joni's work after the watershed of the late Seventies collaboration with Charlie Mingus. Under his sway, she started meandering melodically, and the poetic awkwardness that creeps into some of the lyrics in The Hissing of Summer Lawns ("Like a priest with a pornographic watch/Looking and longing on the sly") can turn into outright pretentiousness.
But in Turbulent Indigo (1995) she recovered much of her old edgy grace, and her revision of that album's highlights, The Sire of Sorrows and Sex Kills, show her at her incomparable best - a bittersweet poet of human relationships and "the petty wars/That shell-shock love away", as well as a witty and forceful critic of the dreams and excesses of modern America. Is there a more haunting evocation of the heady evil of drug culture than Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire, or a more poignant riff on the vanity of worldly success than Free Man in Paris?
Joni's influence has been profound. I'm not thinking just of her obvious impact on pop-song writers such as Elvis Costello, Beth Orton or P J Harvey, but on the wider musical world too. The best of our young composers, Mark Anthony Turnage, has explored Joni's post-Mingus oeuvre and appreciates its virtues far more than I do; and America's two greatest divas, Renee Fleming and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, have both told me that she was the inspiration of their youth.
As I sit in the recital hall and opera house, I often find myself wishing that more aspiring classical singers could come out of their boxes and learn from the freedom, colour and expressivity of Joni Mitchell's artistry.