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Still Dark in the Tunnel Print-ready version

by Patrick Humphries
Melody Maker
September 27, 1980
Original article: PDF

Cards on the table time - I must admit to never having been that impressed by Joni Mitchell. While friends, whose opinions I respect, tend to place her in terms of importance alongside Bob Dylan and Neil Young, the secret of her appeal has always eluded me.

I always found her open-heart surgery approach to relationships, and life in general, which she scrupulously celebrated in song, too overpowering to enjoy and too clinical to appreciate. Not that I've been completely oblivious to her problems. I mean, anyone involved with Crosby, Stills and Nash obviously merits attention ( and some degree of sympathy).

Even from a safe distance, I did manage to appreciate her unlikely switch from guitar totin' folkie to jazz siren. However superficial the transition, it was at least an interesting attempt at broadening horizons. Her adventurous streak enables her to cut a distinctive swathe through the long and uncommercial long grass, way off centre field.

Her last live outing, the double 1974 "Miles Of Aisles", saw her safely ensconced with the Tom Scott/LA mafiosi, whereas this current double find Ms Mitchell up to her pectorals in jazz. Of the 15 actual songs here, only "Free Man In Paris" and "Woodstock" come from the pre- "Hissing Of Summer Lawns" period.

Quite where that leaves her faithful audience I'm not sure. However laudable an experiment "Mingus" was, it strikes me as her "Self-Portrait", and I wonder how much of her "Woodstock" audience genuinely enjoy her current preoccupation. However admirable her experimentation, it doesn't follow that her fans will find the same satisfaction in the project as their mentor. But then you venture into the "artist" and "audience" dichotomy, and as Dylan once said: "Just because you like my stuff doesn't mean I owe you anything."

"Shadows And Light" is a swift excursion over recently trampled grass. There's three songs from "Summer Lawns", four from "Hejira", one from "Don Juan" and three from "Mingus". In that company, "Woodstock", with only Mitchell and her electric guitar, sound distinctly incongruous, a token requiem. Whereas "Introduction" has all the hip credentials, incorporating snatches of her song "Shadows And Light" along with a scene from James Dean's "Rebel Without A Cause", with the lines: "You can't be idealistic all your life, Jim". "Except to yourself, except to yourself"! Significant? Of course, I can't imagine Joni Mitchell committing anything to record which she doesn't feel is relevant.

For me, though, one of the problems with Joni Mitchell is the way her songs fail to come across as total works; individual lines may strike a responsive chord, but I find her unable to sustain that involvement over an entire song, let along a double album. It can work, as on the effectively percussive "Dreamland", or the doomily compulsive "Furry Sings The Blues" and the Mingus numbers. There's a token slab of rock 'n' roll, courtesy of the old Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers "Why Do Fools Fall In Love" (the current single), with impressive vocal support from The Persuasions. (Lymon is also featured in the bizarre "Introduction" singing "I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent". Ironic, when you consider he died of a heroin overdose aged 26!)

Even that voice, which has been known to make grown men crumble like copies of "The War Cry" on a Saturday night, seems restrained here, with few soaring eyrie highs. Her phrasing is as impeccable as ever, but sounds remote and uninvolved.

For those, though, who revel in the Mitchell melancholy, there is enough here to keep you happy, or miserable. It just sounds so pat, so flawlessly joined together to no particular end. Seamless saxophone solos from Michael Brecker, immaculate bass and drums from Jaco Pastorious and Don Alias and Mitchell's scatty vocals and inscrutable lyrics.

A good clean sound, a cross section of recent favourites, suitably enthusiastic applause; the song finishes, the record ends, and there's no change, no involvement, all part of an aloof mystique, love songs which lack tangible substance, empty in their abstraction.

The grudging admiration I feel for Joni Mitchell's current musical state is tempered with a sense of frustration at her remoteness. To paraphrase Patti Smith: "Joni Mitchell may be suffering for your sins, but they're not mine"!

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (10394)


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