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Of Joni Mitchell and Spotify Print-ready version

Thoughts on the singer-songwriter's return to the streaming service and other things

by Robert Gilbert
Listening Sessions
April 30, 2024

For 781 days, Joni Mitchell's music was nowhere to be found on Spotify. Her catalogue was removed two days after Neil Young, in protest of the exclusive deal that the streaming service inked with Joe Rogan, decided that Spotify "can have Rogan or Young. Not both." True to form, Spotify chose the podcaster and not the musician. Early this year, once Rogan's show began to appear once again everywhere, as they say, you get your podcasts, Young soon returned to Spotify. Again, true to form, the resurrection of his catalogue was accompanied with a fairly cranky statement titled, "My Return to Low-Res Spotify" and the following lede: "Spotify, the #1 streamer of low-res music in the world - Spotify where you get less quality than we made, will now be home of my music again." Mitchell followed suit without an announcement. By March 23, it was all back.

Now, even during the period of Young and Mitchell's ultimately unsuccessful (and sadly so yet by no means surprising) boycott of Spotify, bits and pieces of their music were still there. Hits like 'Heart of Gold' and 'Harvest Moon' could still be streamed. For Mitchell, her original recordings of 'Both Sides Now' from 1969's Clouds and 'Big Yellow Taxi' from the following year's Ladies of the Canyon remained. Stray bootleg recordings appeared as well. For a while, those intrepid with metadata snuck in things like 'Coyote' from 1976's Hejira with gibberish for both the song title and artist. And, even more crucially, Joni Mitchell's music was still just a needle drop or a press play away.

The entrenchment of streaming has not mitigated the importance of physical ownership of media. If anything, combined with the peeling away of humanity that the use of artificial intelligence in creative works portends if we're not smart about it, it is ever more important. To have a subscription to a streaming service like Spotify is to simply rent the music and the other media available on it. It could all be gone in a moment's notice without warning.

There is something clinical about streaming music. It has none of the ritual of, for example, removing a piece of vinyl from its sleeve, placing it onto the turntable, using a brush to remove surface dust, lifting the stylus and then placing it slowly, expectantly onto the outer groove of the opening side, waiting for those few seconds for the music to come through the speakers.

Nothing can replace the thrill if what being transmitted is a lone acoustic guitar, outlining a pattern that is slightly askew but hypnotizing, each note echoing out, the reverb on the recording suggesting an atmosphere of solitude and isolation. Soon, a voice, youthful yet experienced, begins to sing, "I had a king in a tenement castle / lately he's taken to painting the pastel walls brown." On the chorus, the guitar rings out as the singer recounts, soaring on the opening lines and gently returning to Earth by its end, "I can't go back there anymore / you know my keys don't fit the door / you know my thoughts don't fit the man / they never can, they never can." These 68 seconds, the first moments of Joni Mitchell on record, are of the kind during which analog will be always triumph over digital.

Song to a Seagull, Mitchell's debut from 1968, was the culmination of the five-year journey documented on Archives - Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) that Joan Anderson took to become Joni Mitchell. It features virtually none of the songs from which she was already drawing significant attention through covers of 'Urge for Going,' 'The Circle Game' and 'Both Sides Now' by early champions like Tom Rush, Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins and George Hamilton IV.

Instead, the ten songs selected tell a journey from the city to the seaside. The protagonist who remarks that once, "I had a king," closes the album "busy being free" and telling of the many men fallen unrequitedly under her spell. In between is some of Mitchell's most beguiling, often bucolic, imagery. The "sweet well water and pickling jars" of 'Sisotowbell Lane,' the eerie cab ride at the heart of 'Nathan La Franeer,' the "peridots and periwinkles" of 'The Dawntreader,' the promise of New York in 'Night and the City' and the draw of 'Michael From Mountains.' Underlying it all is the sound design that David Crosby, who produced the album, created. It positions Mitchell as performing in a subway station or a cathedral. It accentuates that at its heart, Song to a Seagull is a masterwork of acid-folk, an antecedent to Laura Nyro's New York Tendaberry (though I wouldn't neccessarily call that album acid-folk), Linda Perhac's Parallelograms and Judee Sill's debut. It's an opinion, admittedly, that is not widely shared.

Mitchell herself has called the original mix "atrocious" and had it newly mixed for its reissue as part of the Archives series. To my ears, the new mix does a disservice to the music but to Mitchell's ears, "I fixed it." Either way, the lure of Song to a Seagull remains strong.

I recall recently seeing a post on Twitter which argued the opposite (or so I believe, I've tried to find the post and have come up empty-handed), especially decrying the absence of those better-known songs Mitchell had written by that time.

It's a stance to sympathize with, I suppose. For example, Mitchell would not record 'The Circle Game' until her third album and 'Urge for Going' would eventually only appear as the B-side to 'You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio' in 1972. On artistic grounds, the decision is bullet proof. Besides, to know an artist is to know his or her catalogue. To be acquainted with the hidden gems, the deep cuts, the songs that signify the true fan. The hits are fine too but everyone knows them.

Hits. Mitchell has had a few. And I must confess, despite what I wrote above, that 'Help Me,' the biggest hit of them all, would be my favourite recording of hers. It's the second track on 1974's Court and Spark, and emerges, propelled by a rhythmic pattern of anticipation by Mitchell on guitar, out of the end of the cinematic title track. Drummer John Guerin of Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, then Mitchell's backing band, plays a tom fill that leads to the opening verse that starts with Mitchell's proclamation of "Help me, I think I'm falling / in love again." The second part of that lyric is underlined by a cleanly delivered jazz chord by guitarist Larry Carlton. These three sonic fingerprints happen within the song's first ten seconds. And they just keep coming. The lithe flute lines by Scott, the way they underpin his famous lick on the tenor saxophone (God bless overdubbing!) at the end of the A section, Guerin's fill into the second verse with the toms leading into a syncopated triplet on the hi-hat, letting just a little air into the cymbal and the peak of 'Help Me': the light-as-air, cruising bridge.

Guerin moves to the ride cymbal here, loosening the hitherto constriction of the song as Mitchell sings a scene revolving around the question, "didn't it feel good?" She poses it four times. The final time brings an ecstatic passage. Mitchell stretches out the last syllable as she layers a multi-tracked chorus repeating the full question multiple times. Punctuating it is a full reed section of Tom Scott's playing a saxophone line that sounds like comping on a guitar. The effect of it all is exhilaration, contrasting with 'Help Me''s overall wariness, the danger of falling in love without it being reciprocated, "oh, such a lonely thing to do."

It completed Mitchell's transformation from a folk singer of profound distinction to a jazzy, smoky chanteuse without feeling that anything had been lost in the shift. It also brought an added dimension to her music. 'Help Me' casts such a perfect spell not only because of its lyrics but because of the groove and the hooks that remain hypnotizing as it fades out and - speaking of hits - 'Free Man in Paris' begins. Here, it's Wilton Felder of the Crusaders and his insistent bass line that is key to its lure.

And indeed, it's the craft that propels the albums that follow Court and Spark to make the act of listening to them almost a holy act as that album's surface gloss became murkier and the songs gelot more complex. It may be, in a way, a disservice to not deal with the substance of the songs on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, for example; in other words, to treat them as sound portraits as opposed to texts. But, I will concede that I have not really dealt with or examined what 'The Boho Dance' is about but when its primary strain begins, anchored by a dreamy, gooey trumpet line by Chuck Findlay, I am so lost in its magnificence that I am willing to be taken wherever Joni Mitchell is taking me even as I am not entirely sure where we are going.

And that's a feeling I have a lot with the music Mitchell's music of the mid seventies; more so when the brilliant Jaco Pastorius began recording with her. 'Black Crow,' from Hejira, is a prime example. The rhythmic pattern that introduces each verse has Pastorius using the bass' natural harmonics to chime out a chord after Mitchell and Carlton steamroll a strumming pattern that stops short on the last downstroke. Even more resonant is his work on 'Talk to Me' from Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. The notes he lets ring out and the pattern he bends as Mitchell coyly asks the subject of the song - Bob Dylan - to "talk to me" inspire sonic nirvana. For a song in which only she and Pastorius appear, there is nothing sparse about it. In fact, it is something like 'Talk To Me' - the colourations of Pastorius' bass and Mitchell's guitar are vibrant and rich - that argues that while her music is good at any time, it is best enjoyed during the autumn season.

The congruence of the sonic texture, something that does not dull with repeated listening, with the scene outdoors, trees with leaves of crimson red with a sheen of splendour when haloed by the October sun and the air free of summer's humidity and fresh once again, lays bare the paradox of autumn marking a passage while also a resurrection of the spirit, but maybe that's all only me (as some may suspect, autumn is a season that I love and am prone to frequently romanticize).

Mitchell's music can be wintery too. That association is strong - think of the gatefold for Hejira with Mitchell skating. To give you a sense of the kind of winter it was in Toronto this year, the most snow received was during the spring and it was the first Friday of that season this year while she was making her return to Spotify that 11.6 centimetres fell.

That there was a collective sigh of relief to this news was easy to discern for those who choose to still spend time on Twitter. "joni mitchell back on spotify....the world is healing!!!!!!" and "Having Joni Mitchell on Spotify makes my life a bit better" were part of the sentiment. Here was a more pointed thought: "Excited to get home and listen to Joni Mitchell on Spotify; a luxury I did not ever now I'd be able to enjoy again." It speaks to two contradictory trends in how music is listened to: the revival of purchasing it, typically on vinyl and the idea that if one can't stream it, the music is unavailable. As mentioned earlier, I have always been in the former camp - I have a room full of records and CDs as proof and overflow in two other rooms to put an exclamation on it - but I'll admit, when I saw Joni Mitchell's music coming back to Spotify, I got excited too.

There's the ritual I outlined earlier of listening to a vinyl record or CD but there is a different ritual related to music's portability. I like to think of it as the chance to makes montages of everyday life, something inspired by the first time I saw Mike Nichols' The Graduate (spoiler alert: my favourite motion picture) and the sequences Nichols cut to Simon & Garfunkel's 'The Sound of Silence,' 'April, Come She Will' and 'Scarborough Fair / Canticle.' Set to music, either purposely selected or left to the unknowable flightiness of the cold, calculating algorithm, any outdoor scene can engender - paradoxically - a greater engagement with the world.

And, truth be told, these impromptu faux-cinematic sequences sometimes need a Joni Mitchell song. To walk through downtown Toronto to the hipster world of 'Barangrill' or a secluded part of it to the Charles Mingus - inflected 'God Must Be a Boogie Man' or a stroll through the height of autumn to the aforementioned 'Sisotowbell Lane.' Inevitably, as album-by-album began to reappear on Spotify, I quickly began to queue up my favourites, the songs I had missed without them actually ever being away like 'Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,' 'This Flight Tonight,' 'Shades of Scarlett Conquering,' 'Morning Morgantown' and 'Love or Money.'

It felt good to hear them in a context that in no way was how they should be heard. I quickly built a "Joni Mitchell Favourites" playlist, obsessively adding to it. What was even more exciting had to do with the third volume of her Archives series, covering the first part of her time on Asylum Records from 1972 to 1975. It is a momentous installment of what is proving to be a peerless example of how to thoughtfully catalogue one's artefacts. It was released last fall, right in the middle of Mitchell's boycott of Spotify. By the morning of March 23, there it was in all its glory on Spotify; the jewels of the set finally pried free to enjoy on the go or during a work-at-home day like the version of 'You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio' with Neil Young & the Stray Gators, a bevy of Court and Spark tracks from her 1974 tour with Scott & the L.A. Express (the double-live Miles of Aisles only included a version of 'People's Parties') and an impromptu medley of early rock-and-roll numbers with James Taylor. They all went onto the "Joni Mitchell Favourites" playlist.

But what happened next is what should ultimately be the point of streaming. I began to reach for the LPs themselves, playing Blue and Ladies of the Canyon and Clouds, then satisfying a need to hear the remastered versions of her first four Asylum albums in the CD boxset that came out two years ago. I ordered it and it soon arrived and in went the CDs into my player to savour. It was a superfluous purchase (I have all of the albums already on LP) but it felt necessary and essential to have.

I think the true worth of streaming is that it leads one back to the music in its tactile form. That if you stream an album and feel a certain resonance while doing so, the next step is to buy it and deepen that resonance by clutching it in your hands and settling into hearing it the way it is meant to be heard.

With Joni Mitchell it is, in my opinion, a must to engage with her music in such an intimate fashion but not exclusively. It is a soundtrack for any time, anywhere and anyway that you are able to play it.

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Added to Library on May 1, 2024. (714)

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