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Joni Mitchell's Long and Restless Journey   Print

by John Rockwell
New York Times
January 5, 2003

JONI MITCHELL'S new "Travelogue" isn't billed as a farewell, but it's hard to see it any other way. Ms. Mitchell is 58, and her once-girlish soprano is now a frail and unsteady mezzo. This personally (not to say idiosyncratically) chosen, newly arranged collection of 22 of her songs from 1966 to 1994 presumably represents some sort of retrospective summa.

Of course, it's always dangerous to presume anyone's motivations, let alone those of an artist as hermetically private as Ms. Mitchell. But in addition to this quasi memorial to herself (Nonesuch, two CD's), she has chosen to blast the music industry in a recent interview in Rolling Stone, denouncing the business as a cesspool and MTV's vulgarity, as she sees it, as "tragic." Having now fled her longtime base of Reprise, she didn't flee too far, however, since Nonesuch is also part of AOL Time Warner.

As a longtime admirer of Ms. Mitchell - I even lived in her Laurel Canyon neighborhood in the early 70's - I must confess that my first reaction to this new set was one of horror. Asked recently by WNYC-FM to appear on air with some emblematic examples of American music in the 20th century, I thought of her song "Amelia," which was once my prime evidence when I called her a 20th-century American Schubert.

The song appears on Ms. Mitchell's 1976 album "Hejira," which is full of songs about flight and wandering and loneliness. "Amelia" is Amelia Earhart, the doomed aviatrix. Ms. Mitchell's words tie together place and heart and mind, myth and history, womanhood and a lost love. She starts by evoking the emptiness of the desert and the sky, six jet vapor trails "like the hexagram of the heavens, like the strings of my guitar." Her "life becomes a travelogue" - you see how central this one song is to this new retrospective travelogue of her life in song.

Suddenly she's missing a lover. She equates herself with Amelia and with Icarus, "ascending on beautiful foolish arms."

"I've spent my whole life at icy altitudes," she muses. "And looking down on everything/ I crashed into his arms."

Finally she pulls in to a desert motel, showers and sleeps "on the strange pillows of my wanderlust," dreaming "of 747's/ Over geometric farms."

On the original studio recording, the accompaniment is electric guitars and vibraphones, electronically sustaining Ms. Mitchell's own inimitable vocals, cool and clipped, and almost pushing this sad, intimate, conversational song along to its conclusion. Even better, really, is the live version on her album "Shadows and Light" of 1980, just as nervously forward-moving but with a guitar backing closer to her folkish roots.

The new version, indeed the entire album, comes dressed (overdressed) in orchestral /soft-jazz arrangements by Larry Klein. Mr. Klein and Ms. Mitchell were married for eight years, and although they broke up domestically in 1994, they have continued to collaborate professionally, having now completed nine projects together.

Having heard "Amelia" in its new guise, I think I called it an abomination on the radio. Now I've listened to the whole album. One must make allowances for an artist's right to evolve and for fans' right to cling, even unfairly, to what they once loved. And one must concede a certain winsome communicativeness in Ms. Mitchell's vocal weaknesses. But I still think this set is pretty terrible.

Part of the problem is simple taste. I personally have little use for the kind of bloated symphonic jazz heard here. Ms. Mitchell clearly does have a taste for it, so much so that she now chops up the urgent flow of "Amelia" for soggy orchestral ditherings between the verses.

Any artist must constantly question his or her past accomplishments; to repeat oneself risks becoming a hack. In fairness, Ms. Mitchell has undertaken a hejira of her own over some 23 albums (depending on how you count). From folk to folk rock to jazz (or jazz folk), all with her own highly personal inventiveness, and now to this, it's been a trip that has alienated fans along the way, throwing them off the curves, as it were. But the journey has presumably helped keep her fresh.

That said, restless experimentation also suggests a quality of unwelcome self-indulgence that has always marked her music and her personality. When one confronts the really naEFve paintings that proliferate in the lavish booklet with which these two CD's are packaged - let alone the rudimentary "multi-media content" on the one "enhanced audio CD" - one has to wonder whether Ms. Mitchell has slid too far into her own world. There is usually some kind of healthy link between creator and public, or at least imagined public, a link that sustains even the most private artists and helps dampen the temptation toward vanity projects like "Travelogue."

Her early jazz experiments could be welcomed as the honorable efforts of a folk-rock singer to connect with the wider world of improvisation in jazz. One fears that this album marks some sort of aspiration to "art" in the classical, formalized sense. Nonesuch is, after all, AOL Time Warner's prestige label, especially for classical music and crossover projects of a certain vanguard sort. But a self-conscious aspiration for gentility can kill the essence of the idioms that Ms. Mitchell grew up with.

Above, I called her singing inimitable. But of course it isn't, quite. Right now, the best live Joni Mitchell is the countertenor-falsettist-drag artist John Kelly in his periodic revivals of his Joni Mitchell act, fabled in downtown Manhattan. Mr. Kelly sings Ms. Mitchell far better than she sings herself now. If you want her unadulterated, buy albums like "Ladies of the Canyon," "Blue," "Court and Spark" or "Hejira." If you want to see her in person, catch John Kelly.

 

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