Three decades ago, an obscure Canadian folk chanteuse by the name of Joni Mitchell recorded "Both Sides Now," an original, wistful tune she hardly imagined at the time would become a hit.
Eighteen albums later, Mitchell has re-recorded "Both Sides Now" with 70 members of the London Symphony Orchestra backing her. And the song finds solid company with jazz and pop standards about love and its discontents drawn from the last half-century on "Both Sides Now" (Reprise). Its release Feb. 8, in a special limited edition with three of Mitchell's original lithographs, was timed for Valentine's Day. The regular CD issue will be available after March 21.
While Mitchell is far from the first female pop vocalist to nostalgically mine old romantic standards backed by a huge orchestra - Linda Ronstadt's collaborations with Nelson Riddle come to mind - hers is the most movingly accomplished recording marking a major stylistic shift from pop vocalist to dramatic torch singer.
Part of her success needs to be credited to arranger and conductor Vince Mendoza, whose thickly voiced and finely detailed arrangements do for Mitchell what Ray Ellis's similar arrangements did for Billie Holiday's final recordings. The sumptuously rich massing of strings and woodwinds brings a symphonic richness to songs that are mini-dramas largely about lack and loss.
The connection between Mitchell and Holiday is immediately apparent when hearing Mitchell's version of "You've Changed," a song identified with the end of Holiday's career. Both singers understate the agony of lost love while surrounded by strings that ironically counterpoint the lyrical expression of emptiness with a powerful, full sound.
And like Holiday, Mitchell's voice changed over the decades. The girlishly enthusiastic soprano has become a husky contralto, an attractive and apt change for this album's tone. On "A Case of You," the other Mitchell original revisited for this orchestral outing, the sound of a bubbly, self-conscious young woman commenting upon her ties to her lover has become the sound of a middle-age woman sagely accepting ambivalence. The line "Oh you're in my blood like holy wine," originally recorded in 1971 as a coy lament, sounds in 2000 like an earthy, bittersweet anthem to romanticism seasoned by mature self-reflection.
Never in Mitchell's distinguished career has she sounded as seriously involved with lyrics as on "Both Sides Now." She paces herself slowly and thoughtfully, adhering to the formula of lagging slightly behind the beat à la Holiday and Sinatra. This adds just the right touch of suspense and authenticity to that old chestnut "Stormy Weather." You believe her when she sings "Just can't get my poor self together/ I'm weary all the time." She also wisely avoids overindulging in sentimentality by adding a salty bit of sarcasm to the ironic Rodgers and Hart tune "I Wish I Were in Love Again." You can sense her pleasure in wryly singing "The flying fur of cat and cur/ The fine mismatching of a him and her.... I wish I were in love again" during a recording produced by her ex-spouse Larry Klein.
While some of Mitchell's fans might regret a new album showcasing only two of her songs, it appears likely that many will find "Both Sides Now" a refreshing revelation from a singer who long ago abandoned a simple folk persona to pursue an individual musical vision transcending rigid categories.
This album offers a view of love from two sides - the shamelessly romantic and the maturely realistic - and does so with a musical palette mingling simplicity with sophistication. And while "Both Sides Now" concludes this album with Mitchell singing "I really don't know life at all," in sum the whole CD delivers a lot of hard-won wisdom accrued over the years.