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Joni Mitchell Gets Back to the Garden   Print

by Richard Harrington
Washington Post
December 4, 2002

Buoyed by the critical success of 2000's BOTH SIDES NOW, an album mainly comprising interpretations of pop standards, Joni Mitchell now applies the same formula to her own material -- with, generally, even better results. Again working with ex-husband Larry Klein as musical director and co-producer, Mitchell covers 22 self-penned favourites on two CDs. While such offerings as a lovely rendition of "The Circle Game" are lightly bathed in a wash of strings and reeds, the duo are more interested in using the orchestra to punctuate the songs dramatically than they are in presenting pop/ orchestral muzak. When Mitchell sings "Things fall apart / The centre cannot hold" on "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," a crash of drums creates a genuine sense of impending catastrophe. Not everything here succeeds as well -- the way that Mitchell's hushed singing is overwhelmed by brassy flourishes on "Woodstock" is a case in point. But there is an ear toward artistry in every attempt.Fortunately, Joni Mitchell has backed off recent assertions that her new album, "Travelogue," would be her last. "I'm quitting after this, because the business has made itself so repugnant to me," Mitchell, 59, had told W magazine. "What would I do? Show my [breasts]? Grab my crotch? Get hair extensions and a choreographer? It's not my world."

The commercial pop world -- which has become crasser and coarser over the three-plus decades of Mitchell's career -- has never been hers. A passionately beguiling blend of literate poetics and exploratory music, her work has always deserved better, but given today's marketplace, "Travelogue" was surely going to be a tough sell.

And Mitchell's approach to the project may not help matters.

Two years ago, the lushly orchestral "Both Sides Now" offered Mitchell's take on American standards, including two of her own (the title track and "A Case of You"). That album wasn't just an evocative exploration of popular song but a celebration of Mitchell's mature voice, one deepened by a lifetime of experience (and, sadly, decades of smoking). Her instrument has gradually evolved from the reedy soprano of the late '60s to today's wearily elegant contralto, evoking a viola or muted trumpet. "Both Sides Now," as well as Mitchell's infrequent concert performances, suggested she was intent on exploring fresh meanings to old songs.

On the two-disc, 22-track "Travelogue," Mitchell reconsiders her entire catalogue, drawing from 12 of her 15 studio albums. She's helped once again by Vincent Mendoza conducting the 70-piece London Symphony Orchestra in his own evocative and empathetic arrangements. These days, Mitchell is all chanteuse, leaving the playing to others. Guests such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboard player Herbie Hancock pep up some of the jazzier tracks, but mostly add texture to Mendoza's symphonic strings, brass and winds.

Like Bob Dylan riffling through his back pages, Mitchell and Mendoza rearrange her songs in such a way that few replicate the originals. While some gain emotive and interpretive depth from their reworkings, several are clumsily re-imagined. Case in point: "Woodstock" is slowed to a funereal pace that subverts the original meaning and spirit of the song, replacing fragile celebration with weary melancholy. Mitchell seems to distance herself from the past, now singing, "I know we're stardust / I think we're golden." Thirty-three years ago, she was more confident in her generation's humanity.

Mitchell has never shied away from social critiques, but there's little of that here, apart from the taut jazz snap of "Sex Kills"; "Cherokee Louise," a sharp sketch of a troubled foster child; and the plaintive "The Sire of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)," in which Job rails against a heartless God, demanding to know "what have I done to you / that you make everything I dread / and everything I fear come true?"

A few too many arrangements proceed at a glacial tempo that abandons the rhythmic intricacies of the originals, and Mendoza's string settings sometimes slip toward lugubriousness, making the material more somber than it warrants. Thankfully, there is an occasional burst of jazzy brass: Joni as bebop priestess on "You Dream Flat Tires" or swaggering hipster on "Be Cool." But too much of the album -- from song choice to interpretive decision -- feels like a portentous final testament. "Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)" is less about Beethoven than Mitchell's lifelong "solitary path." When she intones, "They're going to aim the hoses on you / You show them you won't expire / not till you burn up every passion," it's obvious the song has become a career statement.

Another early work, "The Circle Game," takes on the bittersweet character of the previous album's version of "Both Sides Now." Having ridden the carousel of time through constant transformation and discovery, Mitchell is more convincing than ever when conceding that "we can't return, we can only look behind from where we came / and go round and round and round in the circle game." Looking back with the eyes of hard-won experience makes the ride that much more rewarding.

 

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