With a lushly romantic new album, Joni Mitchell speaks to the lover in us all
What exactly is it about Joni Mitchell? Given that many of her songs are expressions of romantic love clearly intended only for the opposite sex, how does she manage to shine her searchlight into not only her darkest corners but ours as well? From her self-titled 1968 debut to her moving new release, Both Sides Now, she has always disregarded “appropriate” behavior as defined by society and the musical powers that be, following her heart and forging a unique path, even at her own peril. She is unable to live any other way, even if at times it brings her frustration and pain. In all of these ways she connects deeply with us, her gay and lesbian listeners.
In her three-decade career the Canadian-born Mitchell has wound her way through an astonishing array of musical styles and poetic journeys, never relying on what has carried her before, choosing instead to reach for new and untried territory. With Both Sides Now, Mitchell makes what may be her most devastating romantic statement yet—a fact that her record label, Reprise, has acknowledged by predating the CD’s March 21 release with a special $49.99 limited-edition package in time for Valentine’s Day.
Here, for the first time, Mitchell has chosen to record mostly material other than her own—and, adding to her own power, she’s backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Singing jazz standards, accompanied by as many as 71 players, Mitchell holds her own and then some, sounding like a beautifully aged wind instrument. The bell-like tones of her early records are long gone, replaced by a smoky, resonant voice that has become an interpretive tool. Mitchell no longer just sings songs; she inhabits them.
The record as a whole is a knockout, particularly “Comes Love” and “You’ve Changed,” which in no way resemble the songs you have heard while cruising your favorite piano bars. The orchestral layers are complex and lush, the vocal phrasing sophisticated.
The two self-penned pieces she does include are breathtaking. Even in this classic collection, they stand out like jewels. “A Case of You,” arguably one of Mitchell’s best songs ever, is stunning not only in the emotional impact of the musical arrangement but in her understated vocal. “Both Sides Now” is an anthem, a song that manages to be so personal yet so universal that any group could take it and use it as a theme song.
In a profound way Mitchell put into words long ago what so many of us in the nonstraight community know to be true: Being able to look at life and love from both sides brings us wisdom and compassion, even as we realize we may never know what it all means.
Buirgy is a Los Angeles–based singer-songwriter. Her debut CD is A Small Word.