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Joni Mitchell confirms 20-year wasteland   Print

by Steven Rosen
Denver Post
November 13, 1996

It's sad to watch Joni Mitchell now treat her career with such jaundiced irony. After all, what has made her contribution to pop music important - when it was important - was the sincerity she brought to songs about her life and loves. They were wonderfully intelligent, sometimes funny but just as often chilling in their vulnerability.

With their rhythms propelled by her acoustic guitar, they were as much folk as rock. But they were an integral part of the then-young album-oriented FM rock. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when she did these songs, self-deprecation would have been as inappropriate on her part as it would have been from Robert Kennedy or George McGovern.

But Mitchell's new music hasn't mattered for almost 20 years. And now that she finally has released a greatest-hits album, she's done it in a way that lets you realize she knows that. You feel sorry for her.

Mitchell has released two separate single-disc retrospectives, "Hits" and "Misses." And since she was involved in the planning, they represent her thoughts about her music.

After 1974's "Court and Spark," her most successful record, Mitchell turned away from her strengths. Her earlier songs were powered by her clear, forceful soprano and firm, memorable melodies. But in her later ones, voice and melody too often started chasing the increasingly wordyand abstracted lyrics. The songs were less about her life than about her ideas.

Her old fans never much liked this work, and she never found many new ones. Yet Mitchell seemed proud of it. And from 1975's "The Hissing of Summer Lawns" onward, Mitchell stayed her course, waiting until her audience discovered the growing sophistication of her work.

Occasionally, on albums like 1988's "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm" and 1991's "Night Ride Home," she tried to return to the direct melodies - yet intricate arrangements - of "Court and Spark." Results were mixed. If nothing else, Mitchell deserved respect for her stick-to-itiveness. Once into this new music, she never looked back. And that meant she never released a greatest-hits album, even though far-inferior acts - like the Electric Light Orchestra - have boxed sets.

(She has released two live albums, 1974's "Miles of Aisles" and 1980's "Shadows and Light." The first featured reconfigured, jazzier arrangements of early songs; the second offered live versions of her unpopular late-1970s material.)

So now come "Hits" and "Misses." Conceptually, they're insufferable. First of all, why release an album called "Misses" anyway? It's almost as if an artist who has grown used to failure wants to make sure her best shot at success in years - "Hits" - is undercut by an associated flop.

Second of all, "Hits" is a relative term when discussing Mitchell's recordings. She never had a lot of genuine Top-40 hit singles - her earlier, best performances were too folky and introspective to hold up next to the 4 Seasons or the Rolling Stones.

But her first albums were a tremendous influence on others, who did score hits with such Mitchell compositions as "Both Sides Now," "Woodstock" and "Big Yellow Taxi." And Bill and Hillary Clinton named their daughter after Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning."

When Mitchell finally did have her big hit record - 1974's "Help Me" - it was because she exchanged folk for a jazzier pop-rock arrangement, yet didn't abandon her instinct for the compelling, uncomplicated melody. It seemed at the time like the beginning of an exciting new phase. But it turned out to be her last hurrah as a truly popular artist.

So Mitchell was free to put on "Hits" anything she found worthwhile to her long career. It was her chance to reclaim some of the overlooked songs from such obscure later albums as "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," "Mingus" or "Dog Eat Dog."

Knowing that, she could have followed the route taken by Van Morrison - an artist with a similar career history - on his 1990 "The Best of Van Morrison" retrospective. He used the occasion to introduce old fans to some of his more recent work, which he believed was good. They heard and agreed - his subsequent albums have all done reasonably well.

Or she could have done an in-depth retrospective, perhaps even a boxed set. Instead, she uses "Hits" to acknowledge - with rueful irony - that everyone else was right about her. The great songs were contained on her first six albums, all released between 1968-1974. Those were her folk-oriented singer-songwriter years, when she was still beloved by her generation. Of the 15 songs on "Hits," only two - "Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody" and "Come In From the Cold" - are not from those years. And Mitchell has twice as much material from those early albums that could have been on a disc called "Hits."

Since so many of the selections on "Hits" weren't, it's hard to figure out Mitchell's concept behind "Misses." Only three of its 14 songs are from her early years - the others are from unfamiliar work.

And many do pale when compared to her early songs; they lack a sense of intimacy and sometimes are downright clunky. Yet it's also evident, via the selections from 1988's "Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm," 1991's "Night Ride Home" and 1994's "Turbulent Indigo," that she has written some moving, affecting tunes since 1975. The "Hits" and "Misses" discs seem intended to make sure most people keep missing her new work. Or else, to keep believing her old material is all that matters.

After all these years fighting that perception, Mitchell seems to want to make sure it doesn't change. Even when it could.

Isn't it ironic?

 

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