Drawing by CHARLES POWELL
A veteran confessional singer songwriter misses the mark on her latest epic
2 stars out of 5
Near the end of TTT, Joni Mitchell's first studio album in four years, the veteran singer spins a potent tale about a middle-aged woman traveling to spend Christmas with her elderly mother. She arrives with a new lover, and the two take up residence in a downtown hotel for the stay. Her mother adamantly disapproves, casting shame on her daughter for her brazenness and immorality. The daughter, considering her age and past, is incredulous. "Why is this joy not allowed?," she asks, adding in the chorus, "You know, happiness is the best facelift."
Unfortunately, for the bulk of her new album, Mitchell sounds more like the mordant mother than the free-spirited divorcee. Sticking with the passionless form of chamber pop that she's used throughout the '90s, which relies too rigidly on the brittle combination of heavily treated guitar chords and chilly-sounding synthesizer washes, Mitchell mostly writes from the point of view of a curmudgeonly cynic these days. Her self- righteousness comes across as dour and distant, especially when matched with an austere avoidance of melody.
The few moments of joy--indeed, any clear emotion--jump out like splashes of color on a bleak landscape. The song "Lead Balloon" has an invigorating chorus, full of ecstatic leaps of energy, that sounds buoyant amid a predictable tale of contemptible male-to-female power playing. And when she sings, "Since I lost you, I can't get through the day without at least one big boo-hoo," the childlike choice of words is charming rather than silly--it's the sort of thing that soudns poignant coming from a veteran singer, but would sound ridiculous if states by Jewel, Lisa Loeb or any of the young acolytes awkwardly carrying forward the confessional singer-songwriter torch that Mitchell first lit.
At her worst, Mitchell simply fires out condemnation with the dispassion of a shotgun. Even when aiming at deserving targets, such as the poisoning of oceans or the rape of Japanese girl by U.S. servicemen, she pulls the trigger without much invention or passion.
The low point is the title song, which singles out modern rock 'n' roll as her mark. "Taming the Tiger" offers a blanket denunciation of '90s rap and rock--characterizing the record biz as nothing but "hoods in the hood and the whiny white kids, boring!" She's often blasted the music industry in the past, sometimes with pointed accuracy, but now she sounds like an out-of-touch elder casting aspersions on a generation she doesn't understand. Didn't a stodgy, older element once refer to her ground-breaking early '70s work as whiny, self-indulgent, and boring?
In her painting, Mitchell's other primary artistic pursuit, her work has gone from abstract to traditional; in recent years, she's been creating a series of increasingly interesting still lifes, landscapes and portraits. It's too bad she doesn't bring that kind of passion to her music, which has grown brittle and insular and lacking in the stuff of life.