Joni Mitchell, Taking a Swing Through Pop Standards of the '30s and '40s
Joni Mitchell, one of the most influential musicians of the past 30 years, is a latecomer to American popular song, at least as a performer. A few years back, when she sang the Lena Horne staple "Stormy Weather" at a fund-raiser, it marked her initial foray into new territory. That was soon followed by a pair of standards recorded for Herbie Hancock's Gershwin tribute album.
And when the singer-songwriter toured last year with Bob Dylan, she surprised fans with her sly, dusky reading of "Comes Love," a torch song long associated with Billie Holiday. That made sense on two counts. Thanks to constant smoking, Mitchell's voice has darkened and roughened to grainy, Holiday-like pathos over her three-decade career. In addition, much of her own writing has addressed the coming, and the going, of love.
And that's the central theme of "Both Sides Now" (Warner Bros.). It's Mitchell's 20th album, but the first consisting mostly of other writers' material and the first to feature her with an orchestra (the London Symphony) rather than a band. Most of the songs are pop standards from the '30s and '40s, strung together into a narrative about love's laborious journey, from first sweet thrall and joyful bloom to inevitable decay and sorrowful dissolution.
The album opens on a seemingly happy note with "You're My Thrill," its Holiday-ish bounce and glow suggesting pleasures both immediate and anticipated, though there's also the intimation of love-as-a-drug. An essential insecurity of the heart is underscored by Mitchell's reading of the Etta James classic "At Last," in which sudden happiness feels more like burden than relief. Mitchell then reprises "Comes Love," its hazy fatalism evoked by Mark Isham's muted trumpet and the singer's resigned declarations that "Comes a headache, you can lose it in a day/ Comes a toothache, see your dentist right away/ Comes love, nothing can be done."
That absolutism is made worse when problems arise in a relationship, as they do in the bittersweet dismissal of "You've Changed" and "Answer Me, My Love," where Mitchell wearily insists that "if you're happier without me/ I'll try not to care/ But if you still think about me, please listen to my prayer." Such a prayer seems temporarily answered on "A Taste of You," where the singer confesses, "You're in my blood like holy wine/ You taste so bitter but you taste so sweet/ Oh, I could drink a case of you right now and still I'd be on my feet."
But it's back to love hangovers with the pleading "Don't Go to Strangers" and the convoluted mood swings of "Sometimes I'm Happy," one of the few tracks to favor light, brassy blasts over lush, romantic strings. Elsewhere, Mitchell does what scorned lovers often do: She puts up a brave front--on "Don't Worry About Me." She also surrenders to the light swing of Rodgers and Hart's "I Wish I Were in Love Again," during which a laundry list of negatives ("the broken dates, the endless waits . . . the conversation with the flying plates") somehow balances against the surety of connection: "Believe me, sir, I much prefer/ The classic battle of a him and her/ I don't like quiet and I wish I were in love again."
Mitchell is comfortable in this milieu, adapting easily to the disciplined lyric flow of classic popular song, so very different from her own run-on lines. Like any canny veteran, she covers encroaching vocal limitations with richer interpretive nuances--you can feel these songs as much as hear them. She also seems relieved to be away from autobiography: These songs address aspects of love in universal terms that may seem quaint in today's era of clumsy explicitness, but resonate in a timeless manner.
Which is why the two Mitchell originals, smartly recast by arranger Vince Mendoza in keeping with the mood of the project, work so beautifully. "A Case of You," from 1971's "Blue" album, is as gently intoxicating as its premise, while the title track, which dates from 1968, gains tremendously from its notion of looking at life, and love, from the opposed perspectives of innocence and experience. "They say I've changed," Mitchell sings with ineffable sadness, adding, "Well, something's lost and something's gained in living every day." As she moves through her overdrawn memory bank with dirgelike melancholy, Mitchell recognizes the essential tragedy. "It's life's illusions that I recall," she sighs, conceding, "I really don't know life at all."
"Both Sides Now" is available now in a special collectors' limited edition that includes four original Mitchell lithographs. A regular release follows March 21.