Joni Mitchell

2002: Nonesuch 79817-2

Disc One:

  1. Otis and Marlena
  2. Amelia
  3. You Dream Flat Tires
  4. Love (I Corinthians 13)
  5. Woodstock
  6. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (based on a poem by W B Yeats)
  7. Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune)
  8. The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)
  9. For the Roses
  10. Trouble Child
  11. God Must Be a Boogie Man

Disc Two:

  1. Be Cool
  2. Just Like This Train
  3. Sex Kills
  4. Refuge of the Roads
  5. Hejira
  6. Chinese Café/Unchained Melody
  7. Cherokee Louise
  8. The Dawntreader
  9. The Last Time I Saw Richard
  10. Borderline
  11. The Circle Game

I’d coveted this baby for a couple of years but couldn’t quite justify the expense (around US$35) as it seemed (in advance) to be some strange cross between her Hits/Misses “Best Of” albums and her previous work, the lushly orchestrated Both Sides Now, almost a continuation of the latter actually. And it is…but the material this time is all her own, from throughout her life, and right off the bat it’s arresting to say the least.

Four of these songs are from Wild Things Run Fast, the only one of Joni’s studio albums after Blue I don’t have in my collection: oh, I’ve heard it, I even have a copy on cassette deep in a box full of tapes, but every time I’ve considered buying the CD, just to complete the collection as it were, I’ve consistently judged it too weak to stand alone or even among its brethren. So hearing these versions of songs I found weak is absolutely fascinating. “You Dream Flat Tires” certainly gets a spicier grip going here than on its original album!

“Love (I Corinthians 13)” is one I didn’t think I’d heard before, and in this one rare case I was feeling grateful to have heard this version first…and then I discovered its original version was the closing track on Wild Things Run Fast. I guess by the end of that album I was so turned off by the production—all reverb, synths, and schmoozy sax/guitar work that made her vocal deliveries sound like unhappy and weary just-one-more-take-please-Joni runthroughs—that even the lyrics didn’t touch me. For that matter, there’s nothing like hearing a commentary on love from a worn and slightly guarded or resigned voice that has obviously “looked at life from both sides now” to put it mildly, and this version is very much the latter and makes her 1982 voice sound almost naïve. Furthermore, “Love” here is commandingly beautiful and moving. Joni imparts such personal weight to every phrase here that I actually got off my buttoxes and got down my copy of The New English Bible to compare translations and THEN reviewed the French translation I have of that scripture. It takes something this good to make me do that, even being a philologist.

“Woodstock” is cinematic yet intimate, an at-first-unrecognizable reworking, but for all its grand sweep of heights and depths it still can’t knock the Crosby Stills Nash & Young version off the top perch where it’s been shining gloriously since 1970. “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” on the other hand, I thought couldn’t unseat its original version for earnestness; maybe it doesn’t, by that definition, but it certainly wins the contest for its sense of impending chaos and anarchy…a startling orchestration that ranges across many styles of musical drama—YOW!!!

I still can’t get into “Judgement of the Moon and Stars,” but she gives it a mighty drama here and on a gigantic-sounding canvas, so at least it’s more demanding to consider than the original was. This is one I know will drive me to contrast both versions many times and delve further into its origins. Similarly, “The Sire of Sorrow” is far more compelling this way than in its first round, which verged on pedantic and pious; the drama’s much more drastic here, albeit still not perfect (the men’s choir moves me not), and again the orchestration is amazingly expressive.

“Be Cool” was just about right in its first incarnation on Wild Things Run Fast, so this version seems to me to be a replaying of it in Sharks-versus-Jets mode; both versions are very pleasantly attitudinal. I definitely prefer the original version of “Just Like This Train,” as Court and Spark’s songs were perfect on that album, but it’s interesting to reconsider the song from this slower-paced perspective.

I didn’t care for “Sex Kills” as it debuted on Turbulent Indigo, but then that whole album was so festeringly dark and pessimistic (somewhere between nihilistic and apocalyptic) that none of its tracks emerged without a doom-laden shell; here the sentiments—a mix of frantic despairing hopelessness and bitterness (there must be a word for the former, but I honestly can’t think of it)— are not lessened, but rather intensified, dramatized, and turned from grievances into weapons with the lethal sharpness of a horrifying black-and-white photograph of atrocity. Instead of its tone being “oh, this is terrible, how has it come to this,” with wringing of hands and the feeling that the gloomy seer is retreating in despair to an ivory tower while the world continues its bloody machinations, this version jumps directly into the maelstrom and describes the slaughter from the first beat. It’s grandly presented tragedy like a symphonic Delacroix tableau, but without hope; and through most of the song Mitchell sings the title phrase as a frank comment, a metaphor, devoid of greater meaning, but as the darkness redoubles and the sense of tragedy and doom mounts, the line “sex kills” becomes a testimony of how twisted things have become, that something as beautiful and rejoiceful as sex is now not just a weapon but an act of murder. The orchestration here is as explosive and vastly extreme as that Delacroix scene demands, maybe more so, and in any case it’s aweingly mighty.

Her revisiting of “Refuge of the Roads” is slow and touching but has a long way to go in shaking me of the original’s perfect impressions…and the delicate textual adjustments of this version intrigue me but still don’t change things. This track was beautiful not only on its own but as Hejira’s close, and I still hold it up as that. (And anyway her melodic revisions detract from the concise expression of the original.) Although the orchestration of this version is mighty (and worthy of its lyrical reference at the “clouds of Michaelangelo” lines), Joni’s delivery verges on peevish or stingy, to me, which believe me confounds me.

“Hejira”…hmm…. I had thought it perfectly succinct in its original version, and this one seems unnecessarily cluttered, but I do appreciate the reconsideration. “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” didn’t move me at all in its first form and only touches me as heavy pathos this time around, I’m afraid, all mournful regret and commiseration of terribly maudlin oldness; the pause here at “God speed your love to me” however does grip me and force me to recast my perspective of what’s expressed, as it involves past, present, and future….

I don’t think “Cherokee Louise” needs revisiting, although to hear it stripped of its distracting multitracked backing vocals it really does command new sympathy and seriousness. “The Dawntreader” nearly predates me, not just in terms of my awareness of Joni’s catalog—the original was recorded a couple of years after I was born—so I don’t really have anything to comment on that one…but it’s followed by Blue’s unforgettable closing mood-piece “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” It takes on a certain chilling secondary cast here, but the original is more immediate. This is just a distant retrospective glance at the first expression’s uncertain certainty.

Like “Sex Kills,” “Borderline” was for me one of Turbulent Indigo’s many depressively fatalistic moments. This revisiting of it at least replaces the original’s shrill contempt with some compassionate sorrow, but even so it’s hardly an engaging or even encouraging lyric. In other words, even though it gets lush strings here, “Borderline” still alienates me.

The final track? Always a critically important choice and so hard to choose regardless of the artist or the breadth of their body of work. “The Circle Game” certainly gets a new treatment here: the song dates from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon but is now over 30 years old, and this version grimly acknowledges how the celebration of beautiful innocence of the original contrasts with (but must face) the grey and discouraging realities of the present day and what comes next. Not an uplifting note to end the album on, on its own, but then the song’s messages do gently remind us that things are in flux, that the Wheel of Fortune is still very much in motion regardless of our awareness of it….

If I had a general criticism about this album—and I hasten to say that criticism is NOT what my website’s commentaries are about, I write to celebrate—it would be that the orchestrations are at times quite over-the-top and in a sense distract from Joni’s singing; then again, maybe that was intentional…not to distract, exactly, but to put her inextricably integral vocals as singer-songwriter into a more dramatic and broader setting than is usually the case. And it’s not as though her deliveries are reduced to an elementally small fragment in this arrangement: she certainly roars and snaps (as on “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”) as much as she broods and whispers (as on “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” although her little waitress imitation there is a left-field zinger that reminds us that she’s very much in control of what you’re hearing presented). The overall effect is intensely moving, although individual tracks demand very different specific reactions. I’m profoundly impressed and thankful that she’s created this album.

I do wonder how this sounds to sympathetic ears that don’t already know the original versions of these songs; I’ve lived with nearly all of her songs for so many years that they’re like part of my skin, like whatever the positive equivalent of a scar would be, I guess…. That’s why I was surprised when a coworker who sings recently remarked that she found Joni’s songs vocally challenging: for me singing them is technically effortless, it’s controlling the emotions and nuances that’s harder…I do always delight in them.