Joni Mitchell: A Career Retrospective

Strangely enough I discovered Joni Mitchell through Prince and Led Zeppelin. Since a young age I’ve been a music history geek, and often in rock star biographies I’d see mention and tribute to Miss Joni. There were numerous mentions of Joni in the Led Zeppelin bio “Hammer of The Gods.” On the back of Prince’s CONTROVERSY album there’s a Joni Mitchell shout out. And further down Prince’s discography he goes as far as quoting a line from Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” in his own song “Ballad of Dorothy Parker”.

Many time in my youth I discovered music I loved while riding in the back seat of my parent’s car. And that’s where I first found Joni too. “Help Me” came on the radio and I was finally able to hear the song that I knew only a line of via that Prince song. And in that song was a world with a richness and depth like no other I’d known. It was 1989. I was 14.

Somewhere along the way I began to research Joni Mitchell. I knew a lot about her and her music before I even heard one note. I knew that the titles of her albums themselves were fascinating. “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”. “Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm”. Etc. And the song titles themselves were equally alluring. I couldn’t imagine what a song named “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” might sound like? Or “Judgement of The Moon And Stars”. And countless others?

So there came a point where I’d read so much about Joni I knew the titles of many of her songs by heart. This was before the internet, and I was living in a small town. I had no idea what any of the album covers looked like. I had no idea, but for that one moment I heard her on the radio, what her songs sounded like. But her world called, and I knew I had to listen.

I decided I would have to own all these albums. And know them. Live them. And so the quest began. I used to work for my mom at a flea market every Sunday. It was dreadful. I hated getting up that early on a weekend. Going to school was bad enough. But I did it. One of the perks was eating the grizzly and delicous burgers and dogs. And one of the other perks was being able to scout out stuff for my book and cd collections.

So I started searching. And one Sunday I found my first Joni Mitchell CD. “Chalk Mark In a Rain Storm”. In retrospect, now knowing Joni’s entire catalog, I guess that was an odd place to start. But upon the needle hitting the record I fell in love. “My Secret Place” took me a world of bleachers and cafe windows far more sophisticated than my beloved Madonna and Prince. Eventually I took trips to Buffalo NY and other cities and collected all the music. I had a huge scrapbook of Joni clippings. I wish I still had it…although I imagine a good chunk of that stuff is archived on Joni’s wonderful website.

In 1997 Joni Mitchell announced she would never write new music again. And we’ve all heard performers cry wolf man times. Even I thought Joni was a bit full of shit. But years and years went by and she seemed unwavering. Honestly, I was a bit bummed and angry about it. You cannot force creativity I suppose. But I really really looked forward to Mitchell’s next releases. They always came at the right time. They always had something really unique to say. And even if the Top 40 wasn’t listesning I was. And I knew if I was, other people were too.

In the middle part of this decade Joni began to release anthologies of her work. They had beautiful packages with the same old songs. I was glad to have new Mitchell product…but afterwhile I began to feel a bit taken advantage of as a loyal fan and listener. These career overviews didn’t make me revisit her old stuff and love it more. I already loved all those songs with all of my heart. Truly. Joni has very few duds in her catalog. All those CD honestly made me love Joni a little bit less. And that hurt. But if she kept putting out those anthologies for twenty years I’d have bought them all…

And then early this year it was announced that Joni was writing again. And I bounced around my room. The unthinkable had happend! And it meant so freaking much to me. The voice would be back. The songs would be back. The erratic and unexpected journey would continue. It wasn’t the end of the road. I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a new release in years and years.

So this coming Tuesday, the new Joni Mitchell album SHINE will come into my life. Joni, you will never read this. But we’re so glad you’re back. So fucking glad…

I am so thankful that Joni is returning with music that for the next six days I am going to write a career overview. The journey of Joni’s music is perhaps one of the most adventerous, exciting, and inspirational one can take. It was such a thrill to buy all these records and hear them for the first time. The songs were thrilling. The evolution was thrilling. The cover art was thrilling. Collecting Joni Mitchell’s music played such an important role in the development of me as an artist, person, and thinker. And once again I am inspired.

Part 1: The First Three Albums

SONG TO A SEAGULL (1968)

Joni’s first album is perhaps one of her most fluid. It’s certainly a magical and enchanting listen. It is interesting to note that even from this album on Joni’s cover art very accurately represents the music inside the package. Here you see an almost childlike drawing, full of doodles and swirly lines and hippie-esque imagry. The music itself is full of images of castles and pirates and ships and seagulls. But don’t be fooled by the doodles and fairytale-equeness of it all. Inside these early songs is a haunting and emotionally resonant core. “Night in The City” is a swinging early favorite. But really, all the songs on this album are a favorite. I believe this is Joni’s only CD that is blatantly set into two parts. Side One was “I Came To The City” while the more peaceful side two is “Out Of The City and Down To The Seaside”. What a striking debut. Joni sings in a very airy high soprano that is unique to this album. And in truth, Joni’s voice truly did evolve from one album to the next. Intresting side note: I believe on the LP version of the title track the final strummed guitar chord was mixed much higher and tamed down for the CD release. That’s a bummer. That always made me jump of my seat! I could write about every song on this cd. I won’t though. You should explore it yourself. It’s an emotional and magical place.

CLOUDS (1969)

This second album is a bit more stripped-down that the first. The production is less hissy and airy, and Joni’s guitar and voice are up front and center. This makes sense just by looking at the cover art. The curly-q’s are gone. And the music itself is a bit more stark. This album is full of wonderful songs…although I’ve heard Joni mention in interviews this wasn’t one of her favorite releases. Nonetheless the strongest cuts on this album (“That Song About The Midway” “Chelsea Morning” “Both Sides, Now”) are unbeatable, and even the lesser material all has a simple kind of woodsy magic to them you will never find in music today. This is a very pure album. And I must say this is my second favorite Joni Mitchell album cover. The back cover is painted so well it looks like a photograph…

LADIES OF THE CANYON (1970)

Joni truly started to evolve as an artist with this CD. Whilst the first albums were 98% performed on just the acoustic guitar, Joni began writing songs on the piano for this one. And the piano lent a whole new depth to Joni’s writing. The piano songs seemed a bit darker…brooding… In conjunction with exploring new means to communicating musicially, it was as if Joni was exploring different parts of her mind.

There’s a sense of freshness and confidence on this album that resounds authentically even 37 years later. Sure, this is the album housing the classics “Big Yellow Taxi” “Woodstock” and “Circle Game”. But it isn’t just the strong songwriting that anchors this joyous set. You can tell Joni has a blast recording these songs. She be-bops away in her backup vocals. She is growing as a person and as an artist and never before has the process sounded so wonderful and rewarding. In retrospect, while this album was written I think culture was in a good place. The hippie ideal hadn’t been shattered yet. People were baking brownies and playing their songs and searching and bonding and believing in something. LADIES OF THE CANYON is a perfect momento of a dream…that maybe didn’t work out. Unfortunately. Because from the sounds of this album that was a great place to be.

Part 2: 1971-1974


BLUE (1971)

I believe that BLUE was the second Joni Mitchell album I listened to, after CHALK MARK IN A RAINSTORM. Years later I will confess I have a bit of BLUE burnout. It’s downright annoying and frustrating to me to continually run into people who loudly proclaim their love for Joni (for some reason they think they are on a first name basis with her) and I often know what follows. Yes, their favorite album is BLUE. So after running into a lot of annoying BLUE-heads, and hearing the album in Starbucks a few times, and hearing a lot of really bad versions of these songs redone at open mics, well I just was burnt out.

This album is often regarded as Joni’s masterpiece. I strongly disagree with that. Upon listening to it with fresh unbiased ears, I do think this is a strong album. Hell, it probably deserves to be regarded as a landmark album. But other albums more so…

I don’t think in today’s times we can really understand the cultural impact of the album. Joni opened up a lot of emotional floodgates in a way that hadn’t been done before. This album, perhaps, was a precedent setter. So thirty something years later, we’ve heard many imitators being “confessional” and “emotional”.

As far as its place in the evolution of Joni’s catalog, this album marked a definite change in theme/presentation. The lyrics came from a much more internal place, and the hippie-dippyness of the first three albums was suddenly and almost completely absent. The songs are still sung primarily in the high soprano.

Maybe someday I’ll love this album again. I just don’t love it right now. I have to laugh. In a very recent interview Joni basically came out and said the only reason people love this album so much is because they are sheep. I agree. Some of her later work was much more complex and profound. But in fairness, when I was a heartbroken angsty teenager these songs spoke lots to me.

One must also note how the cover art once again reflects the music. After Joni’s original artwork adorned the first three covers…here is just an abstract blue-tinted photo of the artist herself. Even the font is very bold and plain. Much like the music…everything is put out on the line. Stark emotional statements in plain view.

And in truth, I don’t think I can bear to listen to “A Case Of You” ever again. Too many bad cover versions have ruined the soup for me. Now that I thnk about it, I think my cousin had this record when I was a kid. I was always fascinated by the cover. I knew something unique was inside…

I do think everyone in the world should listen to BLUE. I think it’s *that* good. But there’s others in Joni’s catalog I think are just as important, if not more.

FOR THE ROSES (1972)

After the emotional rawness of BLUE Joni went into seclusion for a bit, retreating to her private cabin up in Canada. It might seem extreme to say Joni emerged a new woman, but really it’s true.

This album introduces a sophisticated 1970s woman with a lot more on her mind and plate than on the first four albums. Not only did this album represent a label switch for Joni, it also represented her final move away from folkie acoustic. Sure, the acoustic is all over this album, but songs have a new depth and complexity one probably couldn’t imagine listening to CLOUDS.

This album really touches on the very rapid musical, lyrical, and personal evolution Joni Mitchell made in the 1970s. “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” very accurately and darkly tells the story of a fiending drug addict. Isn’t it strange, in perspective, that a song like this was written and released only a mere two years and two albums away from the completely hippie-fied acoustic la la’s of LADIES OF THE CANYON? I’m making a slight generalization here, but it takes most artists I’ve known years to make this kind of stride.

People familiar with this album already know the sonic evolution. Woodwinds are added. A full band comes in here and there. There’s more percussion.

This is often the “lost” album between Joni’s two “masterpieces”. This is one hell of a lost album. Truly, I like this one ten times better than BLUE. This is the beginning of Joni’s adult artistic life.

COURT AND SPARK (1974)

And then the woman is fully formed. This was Joni’s most successful album chart-wise. And I cannot argue with the masses this time. Joni made yet another personal leap. This time she is a sophisticated socialite… There’s songs about high profile parties and the fools that attend them. There’s complex and intelligent disccusions about matters of the heart. There’s jazzy intricate character sketches. There’s the first blatant foray into jazz with Joni’s cover of Annie Ross’s “Twisted”.

This was Joni’s first album with a full band. Tom Scott’s LA Express. These songs have so many layers. They are so well written. In many ways, this is a perfect album. It is still not my favorite Joni Mitchell album…but from a musician’s standpoint I have nothing but the utmost respect for these songs. If Joni’s first albums were coloring books, this album was fine art. There’s really not much I can say. This is the kind of album that needs to speak for itself…

MILES OF AISLES (1974)

In truth, I don’t care much for this live album. But I had to mention it somewhere so I’m doing so here. For completists buy it. I don’t think I’ve listened to it in over ten years

Part 3: 1975-1980


THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS (1975)

If the title itself is any indication, this album was a major shift for Joni Mitchell. Her first seven albums consisted of songs that mostly bore an air of self-examination and exploration. Throughout those songs Joni’s writing took us into some pretty dark (and bright as well) places within herself. There was the occasional story-song…but even those had a pleasant air of naivety and innocence. There is no innocence to be found in Joni’s writing by the time of this album. Although Joni tinkered and experiemented with her sound from the first album forward, it was on this album that the experiements began to truly get daring and groundbreaking.

Topically the characters on this album have a darkness and sinister edge to them. Sure, there was the psychic in “Roses Blue” from CLOUDS, or the darkness of the cab driver on her debut’s “Nathan La Franeer” — but this time around we are presented with a whole new world of people. As as much as Joni explored her own mind on her previos albums, she explored the mind of her characters on this one. There was the drug lord-kingpin, the idle and claustrophobic housewife in the title track, the sociological explorations of imaging in the wonderful “Boho Dance”.

The sophistication and breadth of these characters are matched sonically. The songs are given dark, jazzy treaments. Truly, there is nothing more 1970s than earth-tone and a flugel horn.

The most obvious experiementation are the Burundi rhythms of “Jungle Line” and the stark basically a capella “Shadows and Light”. But beyond the obvious, Joni really painted a seemingly accurate portrait of where here peers were at in the middle of the 1970s. Sure, there was money, drugs, isolation, crime, disillusion, and the failure of the whole hippie aesthetic to deal with. And perhaps many of the college graduated from 1970 who blared “Woodstock” were now in marriages that didn’t hold their prior promise. It blows my mind that anyone had anything negative to say about this album when it came out. Sure, some of the lyrics are cryptic. But shit like that is fun to figure out. Prince once said this is the last album he liked all the way though. That’s for good reason.

I must note quickly that the cover art…with its dark silvers and greens…is a perfect representation of this music. On the LP’s gatefold was a pic of Mitchell doing the backstroke in a swimming pool. Perfect.

HEJIRA (1976)

And so we come to the album that is my favorite Joni Mitchell album. This is the album with my favorite songs. This is my album with my favorite cover art. This is a desert island disc for me.

The first noticable evolution is the addition of Jaco Pastorius on bass. Moments into the opening track “Coyote” we are presented with Jaco’s bass. Unique. Brooding. Fluid.

Most people reading this will already know the story. These songs were written as Joni drove cross country. Part of the trip was to drop off friends. Part of the trip was alone. But what a fucking amazing car ride that must have been. Joni must have had a lot on her mind.

This isn’t the kind of album that reaches out and grabs you. This is the kind of album that sinks in over a long time. And it stays with you forever. This isn’t album album of immediate pleasure…this is an album where the depths and nuances and the greys and blacks and whites make themselves present over time.

“Amelia” is probably my favorite Joni Mitchell song…but “Coyote” and “A Strange Boy” and “Hejira” — shit…the whole album just really speaks to me. This is definitely an album for an evolved person. You’ve already dealt with the growing pains of youth and the initial disappointments of life. And once that is done you are left with a lot of things to contemplate. This album deals with a lot of those contemplations…

There’s really not much more I can say. The black and white haunting photos of Joni iceskating perfectly fit this music. Bleak, grey, sad, melenchology, much like the black black highway it was written on. I hope there’s people out there that love this album as much as I do. And if you do, please talk about it.

DON JUAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER (1977)

I do a lot of reading and it seems people are split about this album. Some people feel it is a masterstroke, and others think it is an inflated piece of garbage. I am of the first camp.

It is on this album Joni let’s her wings fly open the widest. There are no boundaries. There is a drum instrumental. There is a fifteen minute orchestral piece. There’s an opening in strumental duet between Jaco and Joni.

And lyrically, this jazzy album takes you on a journey. Beginning with a night on the town…then flying to Miami…then into the fourth world…back to Canada…and ultimately back right into one’s own mind.

The old soprano of Joni’s voice is entirely gone by this point. There’s a warm midrange tone to her voice now…and this journey is a worldly and fabulous one.
Look at Joni in man’s drag on the cover, playing character Art Noveou. And the songs are just like the cover. The travel through the orange desert and the blue blue sky.

I love each song on this album, but the title track especially is one of my favorites. I love its exploration of the duality of the world. I used to always play that song on the day of the first snow fall when I lived in Western New York.

So what does everyone else think of this album? I have a book called “California Rock California Spund” and there’s a whole section on Joni written during the creation of this album. It’s a good read—I recommend it to everyone. Joni was really at the height of her creativity here.

MINGUS (1979)

And here’s another album most people reading this will already know the story of. Legend Charles Mingus wants his final collaboration to be a project with Joni Mitchell. And he heard all of the songs but one before his death.

I honestly have never really heard another album like this one. This one took a bit longer than usual to get under my skin…but once it sunk in it stayed. Some of the songs are immediately likeable: “God Must Be A Boogie Man” is classic Joni, and one can’t help but jive along to “Dry Cleaner from Des Moines”. It is the slower, electric-piano (played by Herbie Hancock) based songs that took awhile for me to understand. But given the proper time and attention, they do sink in.

Especially interesting is “The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey” — Joni basically slamming at her guitar strings. Wolf sounds. A very strange song. Maybe her strangest? I love it.

SHADOWS AND LIGHT (1980)

And so ended the jazzy late 70s phase of Mitchell’s career. I would say this span is my ultimate favorite in consistency. I cannot think of one song from all these albums that I don’t love and adore.

SHADOWS AND LIGHT, Joni’s second live album, is completely the opposite of MILES OF AISLES. This album is a complete EXPERIENCE. With her jazz-star band, Joni really takes all her songs to a new energy and level. The playing on this album is HOT HOT HOT HOT. This is one of the only, if not THE only live album where the live version are just as good, if not better than the album versions. And the live video is equally a treat. Joni with her late 1970s perm and a blue blazer on. I miss those days… I even like the odd cover for this one. Bummer two of the songs from the LP were left off of the CD… One of my fave Mitchell moments of all time is before she intros her cover of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” with the Persuasions. In her Candian accent “we’d like to uh RAWK and RULL you now.” My friend Joshua and I used to say it over and over! I’m never a big fan of ’50s covers, but Joni really does rawk and rull that one out for sure…

Part 4: The 1980s

WILD THINGS RUN FAST (1982)

So what the hell happened between the experiementally challenging MINGUS and the glorious live album SHADOWS AND LIGHT? Oh, wait the 1980s happened. It’s interesting that to every action there is a reaction. And Joni’s reaction to half-a-decade of experiementing was to start off the 1980s with a passable mediocre rock-n-roll album? I am not jumping on the bandwagon here. I love the albums that followed this one. But WILD THINGS RUN FAST is officially my least favorite Joni Mitchell album of new material.

The songs are presented in a rock-and-roll bar band format. Picture every guy with a pony tail “jamming out” and making “guitar face” while playing the electric. Oh, maybe I’m being too harsh. The album actually opens with one of Joni’s best songs ever–the deeply personal and intelligent “Chinese Cafe”. I remember being a melencholy teenager and my high school bedroom. It was Christmas time..probably 1988. And there I sat…alone in my dark blue bedroom with this beautiful Christmas tree and these blinking lights. And I was so overcome by the moment. I played “Chinese Cafe” over and over and just cried like a baby. This song is truly good enough to justify buying the album.

Elsewhere, there’s decent songs. “Moon At The Window” comes to mind. Overall though, just not feeling this one. The cover was cute though. Apparently Joni loves this album, because she draws heavily from it on her compilations. I think part of my disinterest in this album is it’s just not a STYLE of music I really enjoy. What do you guys think of this one? It was starting with this album that Joni would release an album every three years. She kept this pattern well into the 1990s…

DOG EAT DOG (1985)

I love this album. I like this album better than BLUE. I’ve always been a big fan of synth music (Donna Summer, Vanity 6 anyone?) and of course I’m a big Joni Mitchell fan. Those two worlds came together flawlessly.

I cannot go as far as agreeing with Joni that her 80s output is her BEST…I will go as far as saying that it’s JUST AS GOOD though as her earlier and later stuff. I love every song on DOG EAT DOG. Whereas on WILD THINGS RUN FAST I felt Joni sounded a bit like an older lady trying to sound youthful and contemporary via Rock and Roll, I don’t get that feeling from DOG EAT DOG at all. I feel the album STILL sounds comtemporary and vital to this day.

For thsoe who already know this album, I’ll let you fight it out. I love all these songs like I said. But I had a really good friend in high school named Val. Val always hated Joni Mitchell and I was always trying like hell to get Val to like her. In the late 80s Bret Michaels (from Poison) was producing and releasing an album by his girlfriend Susie Hatton. I ran to high school one day with a cassettte in my hands. “OH MY GOD VAL…you’ll NEVER guess what I taped off of the radio last night…SUSIE HATTON’S new single was played on the radio!” And of course, it wasn’t really Susie Hatton, it was “Fiction” by Joni Mitchell from the DOG EAT DOG album. Val took the tape home. “Fuck you Jeremy” she said the next day. “That lady sounds way too old to be Susie Hatton”. Well, I tried.

I am always one for dramatic moments in my life. I remember being prepared for the second I was going to turn sixteen. I watched the seconds tick down on the clock. 4-3-2-1-…and the second I became sixteen I played the song “Dog Eat Dog” by Joni. I knew at a young age what a nightmare and struggle life was going to be sometimes…

One must also note…don’t you love Joni’s wild frizzy perm from this era?

CHALK MARK IN A RAINSTORM (1988)

This was the first Joni Mitchell album I ever heard. Immediatly I fell in love with her world. At that point in my life I was mostly listening to Apollonia 6, Prince, Madonna, Sheila E…that kinda stuff. So I guess I was lucky that the first Joni album I tackled was a synth-based one. And I was able to explore from there…

I still love this album. It’s one of my favorites. The picture on the cover with Joni in the indian blanket while the sun sets…perfectly captures the music for me. It *is* like a sunset on a goreous horizon. This album is so LUSH. “Lakota” is probably her most effective environmental rant. The way she shrieks the backup vocals is just fucking hautning and spine chilling. “Beat Of Black Wings” — a heartbreaking narrative about a soldier…is another highlight. I cannot imagine how anyone could not love this album.

“Number One” with its tribal rhythmic chants is an A+ groove…and the opening cut “My Secret Place” is really Joni sounding like you have never heard her before and since. Intimate. Smooth. Soothing. To a small town boy…this tale of New York City and Colorado seemed so wordly. When I first heard this album and then a couple other Joni’s, I did a search to see if she used the word “cafe” in all her albums. She did in a lot of them!!

A lot of people say her trio with Billy Idol and Tom Petty on “Dancin’ Clown” is her worst song ever. F that. I love that song! It’s so fun. I love the cheap video she made for it too where she is dancing with her kitty! And in another connection to Prince, Wendy and Lisa (former Prince bandmates) add backups to one song.

I fail to see why anyone thinks of this album as being experimental. It’s a perfect intimate pop album. It did forge Joni’s music into a new sound/direction…but it made sense.

Part 5: The 1990s “comeback”

NIGHT RIDE HOME (1991)

My explorations of Joni Mitchell began in 1989/1990 so NIGHT RIDE HOME was notable in that it was the first Joni Mitchell album I was able to experience in the moment. Things were so different back then. Without the internet it was hard to keep track of some of your favorite artists. People could go without releasing music for a year or ten and you’d have no idea. I first learned there would be new Mitchell in a small clipping in USA Today in 1990. The little blurb made brief mention of a forthcoming Joni Mitchell album named “NIGHT RIDES HOME” (there was an “s” on rides.) After that blurb I heard nothing for months and months, until eventually I believe Rolling Stone ran a little piece about a forthcoming Joni album. I was really stoked. I loved CHALK MARK and I was interested to know where Joni would take us next.

I ran into Record Giant in Dunkirk New York the day of release. If I remember right it was some time in March? Before the net you had no idea what the cover art on a new Cd would be, or what the song titles were (unless the store got pre-release promo materials…) I approached the new releases and THERE IT WAS! The new Joni Mitchell album, longbox and all! Remember those?

Upon arriving home and playing the album…my first impression was that it felt like Joni aged a lot between Chalk Mark and the Night Ride Home. Maybe it’s because there were eight million layers of synths to cover up the huskiness of the voice. Or maybe it was the brave way that Joni was confronting the middle age in her new lyrics. Regardless, the title of this album was very accurate. It really felt like Joni was taking us back home. Although I very much enjoyed Joni’s many detours throughout the late 70s and the entire 1980s, for the first time in years it really felt like Joni was just being Joni. She was a little jazzy, a little pop, a little acoustic, etc. And the sum of the parts made for one very very unique woman just being herself and writing about her life…

NIGHT RIDE HOME has an air of genuineness and completeness about it that felt absent since…shit…maybe HEJIRA? The glorious melody of the opening title track set the tone. To this day I still play the song on my ride home on the fourth of July. It’s a tradition. “Cherokee Louise” is perhaps one of Joni’s most disturbing songs. The impact is deepened by the innocent harmonies of Karin Paris (who would lend similar power to Natalie Merchant’s OPHELIA years later…) The slinky “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” effectively pays tribute to Joni’s youth ten times more successfully than the sub par 1950s throwbacks of WILD THINGS RUN FAST. The lyrics are so details and sharp you almost DO feel you are on Airport Road with Joni. “Only Joy In Town” is just as vivid.

Perhaps the core of the album comes with “Come In From The Cold” and “Nothing Can Be Done”. The former is an unapologetic examination of the evolution of sexuality within ourselves and within our society. Joni hadn’t been so unflinching candid and vulnerable in her lyrics in years. The same can be said for “Nothing Can Be Done” — a song that reflects on the turmoil of love as experienced in the middle age.

The album closes with the heartbreaking “Two Grey Rooms” — new lyrics put to an instrumental originally cut during the WILD THINGS RUN FAST sessions. The song is a true heartbreaker. And the lyrics lend truth to something Joni foreshadowed in her lyrics two decades earlier: “all romantics meet the same fate one day…” The character in “Two Grey Rooms” lives a life of solitude in a dingy apartment only to watch the man he loved thirty years earlier walk to work every day. It’s a heartbreaking and vivid portrait.

I think everyone loved this album. I remember having all of the Joni Mitchell long boxes on the bedroom door. It was so fun to come home and add NIGHT RIDE HOME. I even bought the deluxe edition with the gorgeous photo prints and different color typeset on the CD.

TURBULENT INDIGO (1994)

The first I heard about this album’s release was when I heard a live version of “Borderline” on the TV. The months went by and I heard nothing more. Then I remember Blockbuster Music got these computers installed in their stores where you could look up CD information and find out about upcoming releases. Imagine my spine tingling when I found out two of my favorite artists would be releasing new albums on the same exact day! October 25, 1994. Joni Mitchell: TURBULENT INDIGO and Madonna: BEDTIME STORIES.

I ran home with the Cds. I loved the cover. This CD was the first of a long series to feature Joni’s paintings on the cover inside a picture frame.

Upon first listen I didn’t love TURBULENT INDIGO. I thought it was boring. I thought some of the lyrics seemed rushed and forced. The “gas leaks and oil spills” of “Sex Kills” felt like DOG EAT DOG part 1,000 at first… And I really didn’t like “How Do You Stop”…Seal’s always gotten on my nerves.

But of course sometimes a Joni album takes awhile to sink in. And upon further listening this album’s treasures began to make themselves clear. This album isn’t an easy listen. This is a dark album. Of course this album marked the end of Joni Mitchell’s marriage to Larry Klein…but the darkness and despair ran much deeper than that…

The album opens with the simple “Sunny Sunday”. At first the song may sound deceptively simple and almost charming. Upon closer listen you realize the character of the song is tortured and trapped inside her own bell jar. In this simple, short, and gorgeous opening track Joni perfectly captures a woman trapped and suffocated by her own isolation. And the situation is hopeless. This woman will never leave. She is trapped forever. And so we enter the world of TURBULENT INDIGO.

At first “Sex Kills” felt like a stale retreat of Joni’s ranting and ravings from DOG EAT DOG and CHALK MARK. Especially the “Justice” vs. “Just Ice” line. To this day I can’t decide if that whole passage is brilliant or just plain stupid. Upon deeper listening you hear a pent-up rage in this song that boils a bit hotter than Joni’s 80s stuff. Joni Mitchell’s topical songs of the 1980s tell stories, much like news casters tell stories. The facts are stated. The information is given. A picture is painted. Upon listening to TURBULENT INDIGO repeatedly I realized that this album deals with the psychological effect that all of the things Joni talked about in the 1980s is having on ourselves, and even herself. In the late 1960s Joni and her peers had a dream and a vision. The vision and the dream failed. TURBLENT INDIGO lets you catch up with the disillusion and the corrosion of a heart that has accepted the failure of a dream in an increasingly imperfect world.

The title track is a charming piece of accuracy that took a long time to sink in. But as a writer, while I am certainly no Mitchell of VanGough, I do understand what it means to live in turbulent indigo. Inside my mind and heart I find myself always very sensitive and effected and moved by the things around me. But our culture has been moving consistently in a direction that isn’t tolerant of genuine and intricate in depth expression. So we all become increasingly mute. “Turbulent Indigo” the song is an accurate and clever meditation on the “art lover” vs. “the artist”. And if the song is any indication, these two are only able to co-exist in worlds that are far removed from each other.

“Last Chance Lost” is a final resignation and acceptance of hopelessness, while “Magdelene Laundries” is heartbreakingly chilling. The lyrics of this song are so dead-on you can feel the barren despair of its victims. “Borderline” is an intelligent wake-up call that everyone ignored. The album closes with “Sire Of Sorrow” which is one of the heavier things Joni has ever written. “Best I was taken from the womb…straight to the grave…” And I cannot argue with the topics in this song. In this world, it’s hard for creative and sensitive people to survive. It’s a struggle.

On this album, it truly felt like Joni was older. The songs were stripped down to primarily just the acoustic and that weathered weary voice. There was an occasional sax and synth flourish, and Larry Klein showed up here and there. But this was certainly musically the starkest work Joni had given us since…BLUE?

This album took awhile to sink in. I think I really began to “get” the album one cold November afternoon when I was driving through the Western NY country-side to go visit my friend who was in jail. I was homeless and back then it was a luxury to have a CD player in your car. So I rushed and dubbed the album onto cassette and listened to it the whole afternoon. Ah, memories. Now it’s one of my favorites.

HITS AND MISSES (1996)

Surprisingly enough, TURBULENT INDIGO turned out to be Mitchell’s most successful and acclaimed album in years. In true Joni fashion, all the praise was dismissed. It seemed Joni felt people were paying their dues more out of obligation than because of an understanding of the messages she was trying to convey in her work. I hate to admit it. She was probably right.

In ’96 Joni finally gave in and released two companion compilations of her work. She would only release the HITS album if the record company allowed her the opportunity to compile a CD of her favorite MISSES. We could all sit here and dispute her choices on these comps. Personally I don’t care much about these albums either way. I only recently purchased them for the sake of completion. If anything, HITS is notable because it contains the first CD release of BLUE outtake-became-b-side “Urge For Going”. Other than that, the cover photos were cute. And I did like the card insert featuring the album cover artwork from all of Joni’s discography and the word explore. Indeed.

TAMING THE TIGER (1998)

A lot happened to Joni between the TURBULENT INDIGO and this one. She fell in love again. She found her long-lost daughter. She won a Grammy. And of course, Joni’s as crotchety as ever.

In an interview with Guitar Player magazine in 1996 Joni spoke about a song called “Harlem In Havana”. So I eagerly awaited the new album. The next I heard about it was in late 1997. I was in Florida and I remember that as a year when the internet really started to take off. My friend let me have a couple minutes on her computer and in that five minutes I heard about an upcoming Madonna album named “Ray Of Light” and an upcoming Joni Mitchell album to be titled “Taming The Tiger”.

When “TTT” was finally released I didn’t get it immediately. My life was in a massive state of transition so I wasn’t easily able to get to a music store. When I finally DID get the album, well, I hated it at first!

The guitar synth that Joni uses throughout the entire album sounded gratingly like an adult contemporary keyboard to me at first. Now, I love LOVED “Harlem In Havana” from the get-go, but the rest of the songs…well? I really thought this was going to be the first Joni Mitchell album I hated. And I really felt Wayne Shorter was more of an annoyance on some of these songs than an asset.

But then…I listened again…and again…and again…and eventually I fell in love with not just one of the songs…but all ten.

It’s strange…the lyrical passages on this album seem to go from either Joni’s most trite and grouchy to her most vivid and gorgeous. It’s two strange co-existing worlds. “Lead Balloon” (once referred to as heavy metal, about as far from metal as Yanni is) contains probably the most embarrassing rhyme schemes in Joni’s entire catalog. “Sic her Rover” to rhyme with “over”. C’mon Joni, you are the MASTER! But on the other hand, maybe it’s everyone’s right to have a fun song with fun lyrics. Right next to those horribly lame lyrics are the intelligent truisms of “an angry man is just an angry man…but an angry woman…BITCH!”

“Man From Mars” also gives us one of Mitchell’s worst and one of her best lines. “I can’t get through the day without at least one big boo hoo” certainly won’t win any literature contests…but “I heard you in the water…and the wiring in the walls” conveys the silence and stillness of loss with pinpoint accuracy.

The title track is yet another crotchety moment. We already knew Joni was fed up with the state of the industry, but it was different and somewhat amusing to hear her actually write a song dismissing “the hoods in the hood and the whiney white kids” as well as the “girly guile” on the radio. Oh Joni, you’re preaching to the choir. We all know it sucks too. LOL I laugh as I write this. This is a truly classic Mitchell moment when she sings “BOOOORING!” lol. I guess in retrospect with this album Joni was giving us a more open and candid and uncensored look into her mind via her music. She’s always been this candid in interviews that’s for sure. LOL.

Despite all the grouching and grumbling of some of these songs, some of the most gorgeous lyrical passages of Joni’s career are in these songs. There’s pyrotechnic Autumns, blinking Christmas lights, icecream melting on a piece of pie… It is in these verses that Joni’s ability to paint pictures with her words truly shines. “Crazy Cries Of Love” finds Joni friskier than she’s been in years!

I especially love the lyrics of “Stay In Touch”. “In times like these…the wise are influential…they can bear the imperfections they can keep the harmony…no doubt about it that’s essential…no doubt that’s always been a tricky one for me…” And in that verse alone we see Joni as a fluid and breathing existence who is questioning and challenging herself. And that’s what makes TAMING THE TIGER such an enjoyable listen. Joni’s bitching on one song is completely justified as she makes plain her own insecurities and short comings.

On this album cover Joni paints herself to look older than she ever has before. And throughout the album the lyrics and music convey a seasoned feel. But it’s refreshing and beautiful. Sure, at first some of these songs seem bland and tuneless. But repeated plays will reveal the treasures.

Part 6: The Orchestral Albums and The Comps


BOTH SIDES NOW (2000)

When I found out Joni Mitchell was to release an album entitled BOTH SIDES NOW I was confused. I think I heard the title of the album before I knew its concept. As we all know it turned out to be an orchestral album with ten covers and two originals redone.

Upon buying this album, I listened to it maybe four times. I just don’t really enjoy this genre of music. I don’t think I am qualified to really give an opinion. As a Joni Mitchell fan, I just didn’t follow her into the orchestral wilderness. To my ears this album was dirge-like and boring. Whereas the majority of Joni’s experimentations felt genuine, this time the phrasing and delivery felt a little affected and forced. I am sure there’s a lot of people out there who violently disagree. You may be right. I just may have missed the point.

TRAVELOGUE (2002)

The second of an alleged trilogy of orchestral projects (the third never materialized). This time Joni combed through her catalog and chose twenty-two tracks to re-cast with an orchestra. Upon reading the tracklist, I was very intrigued and interested in her choices. Opening the disc with the super obscure/random “Otis and Marlena” from DON JUAN’S was an odd and captivating choice. My interest was further piqued by the inclusion of “Dawntreader” from her debut.

So did the album work? I remember listening to it in my car and being moved to tears by some of the arrangements. And then I put the CD away after a couple days and I don’t really think I’ve listened to it again. In anticipation of SHINE I pulled this one out to give it a re-visit. I found myself irritated by the “jazz-ation” of some of Joni’s phrasing. It always gets on my nerves how well people revisit songs they feel the need often to change the phrasing so it’s a little bit off the beat…you know…the “jazz” it up. These songs were jazzy in the first place.

I am sure it was an extreme creative pleasure for Joni to make this album. Had it been her last album, it would have been a quirky and interesting way to end her career. Thank God this wasn’t the end of her career, however. So did anyone love these albums?

After the two orchestral albums, we were bombarded with an onslaught of Joni product. It was a nightmare for complete-ists.

THE GEFFEN RECORDINGS (2003)

This expensive box set is basically a re-release of Joni’s four Geffen albums with three unreleased bonus tracks tacked on. Of course I had to fork out the cash for these songs. Joni seems very eager for the public to give more attention to these recordings. I do love most of these albums. But, well…they really aren’t as rare as the box set makes them out to be. You can buy all four albums relatively cheap on Amazon and Ebay. Shit, NIGHT RIDE HOME was going for $2 used? If anything, Joni’s song-by-song liner notes are informative and entertaining…

BEGINNING OF SURVIVAL (2004)

When I first read about a new Joni Mitchell album to be called THE BEGINNING OF SURVIAL my heart began to beat fast. Upon further inspection I saw it was just a re-package of old material. I suppose conceptually this is kind of interesting. Joni culled most of the politically charged and topical songs from her later albums and re-sequenced them. I wonder if this release really changed anyone’s mind about these songs? The market for this album was really her hardcore fans that would have the songs anyhow, and would have already formed an opinion? Hmmm….

DREAMLAND (2004)

And so came yet another anthology. This one made no sense to me. There really wasn’t a clear theme. If anything, it baited the consumer with her largest singles mixed with more obscure tracks. Sort of a HITS meets MISSES and mixes project. The paintings are pretty. I guess it’s interesting to hear these songs back-to-back. It’s kind of like having all of Joni Mitchell’s albums in your CD player on shuffle. Well it’s always interesting when old obscure songs by artists later become the title tracks of albums. And I suppose in retrospect this album may be alluring to the more average consumer, due to the inclusion of the bigger hits. But why?

THE TWO STARBUCKS RELEASES (2005)

Starbucks Coffee released two Joni dics…SONGS CHOSEN BY HER FELLOW FRIENDS & MUSICIANS and ARTIST’S CHOICE: JONI MITCHELL. These albums are interesting curios. The SONGS CHOSEN disc is just another anthology. The gimmick here is that her friends and musical peers chose that songs that made the album. The selections are interesting and varied. Really, who cares though. If anything, this album brought Joni to the Starbucks crowd. I hope it sold decently J I remember being in Starbucks on day. “Chinese Café” was playing. And I looked at the people in the store. I started to get a bit burnt out on Joni. With all the comps that were costing me money. With her music being played in places I don’t associate with the high art I feel she is… But that’s just me being immature and selfish.

The ARTIST’S CHOICE album is notable in that it reignited Joni’s excitement about music and was the catalyst that led to the release of SHINE. Joni chooses an interesting array of songs and artists to represent. And of course, only Joni has the gumption to include one of her own tracks on an ARTIST’S CHOICE CD. I could only shake my head, laugh, and smile. This CD is worth it if only to read Joni’s entertaining liner notes.

SONGS OF A PRAIRIE GIRL (2006)

And yet ANOTHER compilation! This time it was all songs about the winter. Well, mostly. And of course music geeks like me had to fork out more money because there was a remix of “Paprika Plains” that I had to hear. I always loved that song. If anything, there’s some interesting photos from HEJIRA in the booklet. By the time this album came out, I began to really have a bad taste in my mouth about Joni. I hate to say it. I felt like the abused consumer Joni sang about on the DOG EAT DOG album. I still have mixed feelings about this whole era. Of course, I was not OBLIGATED to hear these songs. But maybe it would have been more interesting if she did a “suggested mix CD” track list on her website, and we could have compiled all these songs ourselves and created our own covers?

Part 6: Shine

SHINE (2007)
Initially I said I wasn’t going to write about this album right away. I felt that Joni’s albums have to live with you for awhile before you really get them. I will stand by that statement. However, on the other hand it’s not every day you can write a piece about your initial reactions to a Joni Mitchell album. Since I’m given this rare opportunity, I’m going to steal the moment.

Usually when new albums come out I go to my 24 hour WalMart late late Monday night and get it off of the truck right out of the box. For the new Joni album, I wanted to wake up on a sunny morning, go out to lunch with my friend, and buy the album in the daylight. Since Starbucks was the catalyst for the new album, I wanted to buy the album right from the source. There is a 24 hour Starbucks in Tampa that may have sold me the album last night. From what I’ve read about SHINE before listening to it, this is an album about awakenings and a search for brightness in a dim time. So I stood by my choice to have the first time I heard these songs be with the sun shining on me.

My second initial plan was to keep the album wrapped and bring it home with me. Open it up in my fabulous bedroom and lay on my bed, read along with the lyrics, and listen. Upon awakening, I realized that I wanted to experience this album out in the world. Moving. In motion. In my car. So I ate lunch with my friend, the first Starbucks had no copies of the album (maybe the sold out!) but on the second try, I walked in and saw a bin full of…the new Joni Mitchell album!

I got to my car and went to a deserted parking lot. I love tearing the cellophane off of a CD and seeing what’s inside. Initially, I love the cover for this album. Although I do enjoy thematic cohesiveness within a discography, at times a repetitive pattern can get stale. I am glad Joni choose to try something different than the “picture in a frame” presentation she’s used quite often for the last 13 years for her cover art.

My first impression of the album was that there was no photo of Joni to be found. I found this to be telling and symbolic without even hearing the music. At times I’ve found Joni to be (albeit very lovingly!!!!) egotistical, and it says something about her evolution as a writer and artist that she’s chosen to represent these songs visually with some haunting pictures drawn from the ballet inspired by her music.

I put the CD in my car stereo and let her rip. When I really thought about it…I realized how neat it was Joni opened this album with an instrumental. This is a first in the Joni discography, and the piece is gorgeous. This song was reportedly the song that reignited Joni’s musical muse. You can hear the magic in the piano playing. Sometimes throughout the more recent years I’ve found Joni’s piano playing to be a bit stale…she often employed the same similar rolling pattern with her left hand…(for musical geeks the 1st, 6th, 1st). What a pleasure to hear in this first instrumental, her most inventive and varied piano playing since at least Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

When Joni’s voice came in on the second cut I was moved to tears. It was good to hear the voice again. Singing her own words. I wonder what that voice had to teach me this time. I wonder what thoughts this album would leave me with?

And song after song unfolded. By the fourth cut, the inventive “Hana” Joni was entering new territory and pushing her sound like she hadn’t in years. It bought a big smile to my face. In fact, throughout this album you will hear Joni playing her guitar and piano in ways we have no heard her play it on any previous release. Isn’t that wonderful, considering this is her 16th album of original songwriting? Many times on this album I was reminded of “Paprika Plains” from DON JUAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER. I do wonder if Joni drew inspiration from that track when it was revisited and remixed for a compilation last year. Many of Joni’s piano pieces on this album have a similar classical feel.

The new version of “Big Yellow Taxi” was an immediate winner in my book. The acoustic guitar shuffle was unlike anything we’ve heard from Joni, and it’s not often a singer can reinvent one of their own songs this successfully. Cyndi Lauper failed with her acoustic re-castings of her old catalog. Mitchell herself tried to reinvent her back catalog with orchestral versions. That project was hit and miss at best. This time around, “Big Yellow Taxi 2007” has the eagerness and freshness of a brand new cut. And the accordion stabs were intentionally funny and refreshing on a such a ponderous album.

When initially reading this album I worried that it would be preachy. But listening to it, it is not. This album only stands as authentication that when Joni wrote her environmentally conscious music in the early 1970s, she really believed in what she was writing. Her love for mother earth is unfailing and constant. Through the years many of us (including myself) have fallen victim to the numbing society…the allure of living in the moment…the endless search for instant pleasures. This album is a dark blue wake up call to start thinking, challenging, and moving mentally forward.

Upon the second listening of the album, the messages were even stronger. This is perhaps the most intelligent album to be released in a long time. Quite often, it seems music is written and produced by and for people early in their journey of intellectual evolution. As I have grown up, and continued to try to challenge myself and think outside of the box…finding music that is still lyrically challenging and eye opening is a struggle. But I am thankful Joni is writing from her older-wiser-and unfaltering perspective. I relish her explorations of the human psyche on this album. I relish her acknowledgement that people searching for true mental health and simplicity in this crazy world are pioneers.

Listening to this album twice made me consider moderation. In these days I feel our culture desperately needs to acknowledge the need for moderation. For a few years I got so angry how people just wanted to have fun fun fun all the time mindlessly without consideration of consequence. And in those years I was a grouch and a loner. I do think there’s a middle line. People should have fun, people should dance. But SHINE is a reminder who important it is to think, share, talk, and most importantly to just CARE.

“If”, the closing track on the album, is deeply profound and excitingly stimulating. After years and years of feeling lost as a person without guidance…I am a person who isn’t sold on organized religion…a person who tried but couldn’t buy into the mantras and catch-phrases of the 12-step-program world…but still I try to be well in this world. This song is a nice guideline to live by and it gives me a state of existence to strive for.

I am going to live with this album for awhile. May all your little lights shine…

3 thoughts on “Joni Mitchell: A Career Retrospective

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  3. Rick Broderick

    Thanks so very much for this comprehensive comprehension!..
    I first heard Joni Mitchell and didn’t know it on WBAI radio back in the 60s before her first album
    with Buffy Ste. Marie’s covers..Was not aware of what was coming! Just loved the songs ..Tom Rush, even Judy Collins… We were 16 or 17, having a ‘seance’ in the candle lit basement of one of my female pals, who was a musician of great talent even at that young age. Her dad wrote scores for Broadway productions at the time… She introduced me to Joni Mitchell, with the release of her first album, and that was it for me..
    I was an aficionado, (for my age) with wide ranging musical tastes, having been enthralled since the mid 50s growing up in an 8 sibling family, with music music music always..washing and drying dishes with the radio on, singing along…etc etc… But JM really changed everything from 1968 and then on…I continued with a universal love of stuff from all directions. And a player of guitar drums and harmonica..of half decent ability only…But had enough knowledge and feel to deeply appreciate sound art my whole life, and was lucky enough to live in Queens and frequent the Fillmore East every week for 6 bucks among all the other venues for rock and roll and folk and funk and country and classical and gospel and blues and then the Jazz clubs once I could get in…But Joni Mitchell was, is and will always be the one who gets deepest into my soul..
    All this preface to thank you again, and tell your that yes, of all her contributions to my and haha so many people’s personal creative aural depths, Hejira is most definitely my favorite of all of her album -musical messages..sound art. Because of my addiction or love of the open road and traveling alone, with stacks of CDs uninterrupted for some profound listening, or entry into my molecular interstitial places where my greatest connections pulse to this perfect road album…It’s the closest I get to the universal harmony, where the perceptions and the connections to the immensity are available for my consciousness..
    Whoa, pardon me haha, puttin more simply, I love everything she has done, but this one just takes the cake man!
    Thanks again…you taught me plenty, and it’s time for me to get back to the 80s on, since I’ve been so caught up in the 10 album box set for so long…
    the strange thing is I only got to see her live once, during the Miles of Aisles tour…my sister had one solo ticket, and gave it to me..so I sat in the middle of the audience …in full attunement mode…best time of my concert life among hundreds……take it easy, Rick

    Reply

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