Its hard to approach a double CD that tracks a whole songbook, re-cast as orchestral pieces, with anything but a sense of trepidation. And when bassist, co-producer and ex-partner Larry Klein tells you that: "...we have tried to maintain the same challenging spirit of adventure that has always been a part of [Joni's] music...take the time to let these versions of Joni's songs slowly wash over you", you know that Travelogue isn't going to be an easy ride. You'd be right, too. Mitchell professes to be disgusted with the contemporary music scene and this is a supposed swansong. In summing up her career, this icon of cerebral West Coast songcraft has produced a substantial body of work without one iota of sentimentality.
One look at the musicians on offer here - Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Billy Preston, Billy Blades - gives one a distinct message: this is not music for idiots. This turns out to be both the album's strength and weakness. For all of her heavy friends, Travelogue can make for some heavy going. As on the previous Both Sides Now, Joni pitches her wonderfully matured (as in a fine wine) voice against an orchestra and becomes an interpretive singer; but this time of her own work. From Song To A Seagull all the way to Turbulent Indigo, songs are re-tooled and re-contextualized.
In most cases the results take a while to sink in, approaching a cumulative ambience that resists analysis. However, once the finer points are exposed it's plain that there's much to appreciate. Subtle arrangements frame Mitchell's lyrics in a new light, making more recent work such as "Sex Kills" and "Borderline" seem even more like the tone poems she's obviously keen to move towards. Her jazz leanings are easily catered for by the stellar cast and one can't help but be impressed by tracks that swing as well as "Be Cool" or "You Dream Flat Tires".
It's when the Mitchell classics are attempted that listener tolerance is put to the test. Songs as historically contextualized as "Woodstock" or "The Circle Game" would probably be safer in the hands of others. Under her they merely turn from pointillistic snapshots into abstract expressionism. Vast swathes of strings add little to the original impact of the song.
As a touchstone of musical intelligence Joni's position is beyond question. However her stance over the last few years has veered towards the specious philosophy that older forms such as jazz or classical equate to more serious vehicles for her dissections of modern America. The fact remains that by the time of Hissing Of The Summer Lawns she was beyond this need for critical validity and, as such, Travelogue often smacks too much of revisionism. That said it's still head and shoulders above anything her contemporaries have offered us recently. And that's something we really should be grateful for. Let's hope it's not the last...
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