Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I’m really glad I spent so much time getting to know Joni Mitchell’s 1991 album, Night Ride Home, as it prepared me for her next couple of albums. Ditching the glossy ‘80s production of her two preceding releases, that album presented a mature, almost MOR-sounding Joni (that’s Middle Of the Road in radio-speak). At first the muted sounds didn’t make much of an impression, but (as I mentioned in my previous post) the songs really shone through after repeated listens, and it joined the ranks of my favorite Joni albums.
For her next album, Turbulent Indigo (1994), she must have envisioned herself as a tortured artist, hence the Joni-as-Van-Gogh cover painting. The opening track, “Sunny Sunday,” presents the story of a woman stuck inside her home, who shoots at and misses a streetlight every day, deciding that she’ll leave town if she ever hits it (knowing this will never happen). I’m guessing this is a metaphor for someone who wants to escape her life, but knows she’s stuck. Could it be about Joni and her music career at that point? This is a quiet jazzy tune that would’ve fit comfortably on her mid- to late-70s albums (I can almost hear Jaco Pastorius’ embellishments on bass). Another track that captures the “tortured artist” vibe is “Turbulent Indigo,” a slow brooding song, driven by acoustic guitar & brushed snare drum, which might actually be about Van Gogh. The melody on this one never caught on for me.
One of her favorite recent topics was railing against modern society, and she continued this trend with “Sex Kills.” It’s got a subdued yet bombastic feel, reminding me of some of (fellow Canadian) Bruce Cockburn’s work. This one’s powerful, and became an immediate favorite. Lyrically, it’s like the dark cousin of the Joe Jackson song “Cancer.” Another one that quickly won me over is the stark acoustic “Last Chance Lost.” Her vocals here sound a lot like Sade. It’s got sad lyrics about the bitter end of a relationship (a topic she’s tackled numerous times before). I especially love the way she sings “Last chaaaance…Laaaaast chance…lost.” Since I started listening to this album early last week, the song “Yvette In English” keeps popping up in my head. It’s slow and atmospheric with a catchy little percussive groove (provided by Joni slapping her guitar), and some pretty soprano sax flourishes by Wayne Shorter. The lyrics tell a sweet story about two people meeting briefly in France, like a momentary love affair (“please have this, little bit of instant bliss”). I especially love the background vocals (“Yvette”), sung by Charles Valentino and Kris Kello.
[Joni Mitchell – “Last Chance Lost“]
“The Magdalene Laundries” is another brooding, atmospheric song that tells the very dark (and true) story of women who were forced to live, work and die at an asylum in Ireland in the ‘60s. This story was later told in the wonderful movie, The Magdalene Sisters, which is when I was first made aware of it, but Joni’s song tells the tale just as powerfully as that film. “Not To Blame” has a pleasant melody and some nice piano playing (by Joni), and tells the story of a famous man who beats his wife/girlfriend, yet somehow gets away with it because of his popular public persona. There was speculation that this was about singer Jackson Browne and actress Daryl Hannah, who had a tumultuous relationship, but I’ve read that Joni denied this, so I have to assume this is a fictional story.
Pop singer Seal joins Joni for “How Do You Stop,” a Don Henley-esque MOR tune about the passing of time, with some fabulous lyrics (“One day you’re too young, then you’re in your prime, then you’re looking back at the hands of time”). “The Sire Of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song),” at over 7 minutes, closes out the album with some powerful music, and lyrics based on the biblical Book Of Job. It features a great hook (“You make everything I dread and everything I fear come true”) and some wonderful harmonized Joni vocals, voicing the “antagonist” role in the story. I don’t think I like this album quite as much as Night Ride Home, but it’s a more than worthy successor to that excellent release, and showed that Joni could still deliver a solid collection of songs as she passed her 50th birthday. It should also be noted that Turbulent Indigo won a Grammy for Pop Album Of The Year.
Her next album, Taming The Tiger (1998), is cut from the same musical cloth as its predecessor, although the subject matter is less intense this time around. The first two songs have a “Tom Waits-lite” feel: “Harlem In Havana” with a light Caribbean flavor, and Joni occasionally sounding like a carnival barker (“step right up folks…”), and “Man From Mars” with sad lyrics about a lonely woman missing her man (did he leave her or did he die?). My favorite song here is also one of the most rockin’ songs in her catalog, “Lead Balloon.” Although the lyrics show how standing up to her man “went over like a lead balloon,” her voice sounds younger and more confident. It’s also got some nice lead guitar by Michael Landau.
[Joni Mitchell – “Lead Balloon”]
“Face Lift” is an excellent song about visiting her mother, who disapproves of Joni’s current boyfriend, on Christmas Day. She even references her own name, which makes this clearly autobiographical. I love the beautiful instrumental interlude after the second verse, with keyboards imitating strings, and a moving sax solo. I also like her concept that “happiness is the best facelift.” I can’t figure out if “Taming The Tiger” is about trying to domesticate the man in her life, or how she’s been domesticated. Either way, it’s clear that she’s torn between her home life and her pop star life, and this uncertainty is captured by the atmospheric keys and fretless bass work (by producer and now ex-husband Larry Klein). She sounds content on the uplifting and mellow “The Crazy Cries of Love,” about a couple who are happy to be together (outside in the rain, separated from a party they should be attending, with a train rolling by, seemingly without a care in the world).
The penultimate track, “My Best To You,” opens with a keyboard pattern that’s like a slowed down version of Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open The Door.” It sounds like this is a farewell to her fans, and apparently it was intended to be her last album of new material (until she came out of retirement nearly 10 years later, which I’ll discuss in my next post). If she was bidding farewell, she stated it eloquently: “Through the years, save your smiles and tears, they’re just souvenirs, they’ll make music in your heart.” This track is followed by nearly 50 seconds of silence before the final song, “Tiger Bones,” a pretty instrumental with Joni playing several guitars. I don’t think Taming The Tiger is as strong as Turbulent Indigo, since there are a handful of moody, tuneless songs that didn’t make much of an impression. Still, considering I had never heard this album until last week (I borrowed a friend’s copy), I found a lot to like here, and several of these songs would be included if I were to put together a compilation of Joni’s music.
For her next album, Both Sides Now (2000), Joni decided to “trace the arc of a modern romantic relationship” (according to Larry Klein’s liner notes) by recording songs written mostly between the 1930’s and 1950’s, as well as new interpretations of two of her own songs. Surprisingly, there are only a handful of “happy songs” before the relationship turns sour, which makes me wonder what Joni’s mindset was when she chose this material. The majority of these recordings feature an orchestra, with a few featuring big band swing arrangements. I’m not usually a fan of syrupy-sweet string sections, so a lot of this album was not something I would normally enjoy. However, there are a couple of key performances that elevate this into “essential” territory for me.
Things start off beautifully with the one-two punch of “You’re My Thrill” and the perennial wedding chestnut, “At Last.” With swirling strings & sexy vocals, she really evokes the excitement of new love, which continues to captivate her on the smoky jazz of “Comes Love.” Things go south quickly with “You’ve Changed” and “Answer Me, My Love,” as the relationship has already ended and she begs him to return. Then she introduces one of her own songs, “A Case Of You” (originally from 1971’s Blue LP), where she pledges her love again. I wasn’t a big fan of the original version (it’s good, but not up to its reputation as one of her all-time best songs), and I found this version even less captivating. At least for the arc of the story, the relationship seems to be back on track.
I love her jazz vocal performance on “Don’t Go To Strangers,” where she’s begging him not to stray. One of the key tracks for me is “Sometimes I’m Happy.” It’s got a great swing arrangement with some impressive piano work from jazz legend Herbie Hancock. At this point, the couple is still together but they’re not always happy. For “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” she seems resigned to the fact that the relationship is ending, but she wants to remain friends. It features a nice Wayne Shorter tenor sax solo. The depression sets in for “Stormy Weather” and “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” although the latter really swings. All of this sets the listener up for the highlight of the album, and possibly one of the key performances of her entire career.
When she first recorded “Both Sides Now” for her Clouds LP in 1969, she was only 26, and I was impressed by how such a young woman could come up with a song this powerful, touching on the joy & melancholy that comes with growing older. For this new version, Joni was now in her late-50s. She had experienced that joy & sadness many times over, and her voice was showing a maturity that gives this version incredible emotional heft. When she sings, “Something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day,” you know she’s lived every day of it. Many people, including myself, probably know this version best from the romantic comedy, Love Actually. Emma Thompson’s character finally confirms that her husband has been cheating on her when she receives the Both Sides Now CD from him for Christmas (I won’t elaborate in case any readers are interested in seeing the movie). The heartbreaking scene that follows is soundtracked by this version of “Both Sides Now,” and it’s incredibly moving. However, even outside the context of the movie, I would rank this among her all-time best performances. I’d love to hear from anyone else who was as moved by this as I was. If this was the last thing she ever recorded, it would be a fitting epitaph to an amazing career, but she still had a couple of albums in her future. I’ll be back soon with my comments on those, along with another Joni-related album, when I wrap up my reappraisal of her catalog. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section. I look forward to hearing from you.
“Both Sides Now” (original version):
“Both Sides Now” (2000 version):