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Joni Mitchell's retrospective speaks volumes   Print

by Jeff Miers
Buffalo News
July 30, 2004

Mitchell has cherry-picked her most astute and incisive social/political/cultural commentaries into a whole new album with an arc and flow of its own.

Can't say I'm too shocked. It's not like Joni Mitchell has ever been one to keep her mouth shut. Times being what they are, I'm only surprised it took her this long.

Joni Mitchell has often been lumped in with the hippie proletariat, equated with the tree- hugging, laid-back coalition of the chillin', a typical Californian singer-songwriter. She's anything but, of course. While conservative radio pundits and their brethren would doubtless skewer her as another "Hollywood-type liberal," Mitchell is far too smart, too complex, too talented to be caught in such a dubious net.

As a musician, she knows no peers in her age group. She's a brilliant singer, a groundbreaking guitarist, a unique songwriting voice who also happens to be one of the finest living jazz singers this side of Cassandra Wilson.

Politically, Mitchell fits the liberal profile, but not so fast there, Mr. Limbaugh - Mitchell's political/social/cultural/environmental stance is more complex than that of your average Birkenstock-wearing Dave Matthews' fan.

No, it's no accident that Mitchell has prepared "The Beginning of Survival" for a pre-Election Day release. There are no brand new songs on it. In fact, serious fans more than likely own all of these tunes on their original releases - all from the mid-'80s forward, as heard on the albums "Dog Eat Dog," "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm," "Night Ride Home," "Turbulent Indigo" and "Taming the Tiger."

Why is it worth having? Because, like a collage artist assembling found objects into some new whole, Mitchell has cherry-picked her most astute and incisive social/political/cultural commentaries into a whole new album with an arc and flow of its own. Together, these songs offer insight into where we are and how we got here.

As is evidenced by the album's title, there is tempered hope at the heart of this musical voyage. Or maybe not. "The Beginning of Survival" could be seen as a birthing of sorts; it could also be seen as the end of living as we've known it.

A long-ago letter

Mitchell has chosen Chief Seattle's letter to the president, from 1852, as the centerpiece, a sort of framing discourse for the album. The entire letter is transcribed across the disc's gatefold sleeve.

Some 150 years on, the letter hits hard, perhaps even harder than it might have at the time.

"We love the earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat," Chief Seattle writes. "So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it.

"Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land and the air and the rivers for your children's children and love it as God loves us all. As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know: There is only one God. No man, be he Red Man or White Man, can be apart. We are brothers after all."

Reading this, looking at Mitchell's oil paintings as reproduced in the liner notes, then listening to her 16 hand-picked gems, you'd have to have hardened your heart to avoid the rising swells of emotion - most of it based on a sense of loss - this package initiates.

It works even if you ignore the lyrics, of course; "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Mitchell's appropriation of a W.B. Yeats poem, finds her working her melodic magic over interestingly voiced guitar chords and a startling vocal arrangement. It's hip stuff, no question. Ah, but the text - it elevates the piece toward the sublime. "For what is this rough beast/Its hour come at last/ Slouching towards Bethlehem to be born," sings Mitchell, conjuring a figure with the head of a man and the shape of a lion, "with a gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun." The sense of foreboding is palpable.

The bleak world

"Dog Eat Dog," written during and reflective of the Reagan era, is no less forceful, as Mitchell calls forth a bleak world. "Where the wealth's displayed/Thieves and sycophants parade/And where it's made - the slaves will be taken/Some are treated well/In these games of buy and sell/And some like poor beasts/Are burdened down to breaking."

It's not as if Mitchell's been holding back until this point, but "The Beat of Black Wings" hits like the ominous thud of a hammer driving nails into a coffin lid. Here, she meets a young soldier returned from war. "They want you, they need you," Mitchell's soldier says. "They train you to kill, to be a pin on some map . . . some vicarious thrill! The old hate the young, that's the whole heartless thing! The old pick wars, we die in 'em, to the beat of . . . the beat of black wings."

It's easy to rail against the dying of the light, particularly today. It's tough to do so, however, when even the slightest utterance is used against one to question one's patriotism, love of country, mom and apple pie, and so forth. Just ask Linda Rondstadt.

But Mitchell is no shrinking violet. She has the courage of her convictions. And her cultural metaphysics is well-thought-out and stunningly displayed.

"And the gas leaks/and the oil spills/and sex sells everything/and sex kills," she intones during "Sex Kills," written well before this current administration took power but disturbingly prescient nonetheless.

This is a time where serious reflection and considered thought is in order. And "The Beginning of Survival" is an apt soundtrack for such an activity.

 

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