Joni Mitchell may have limited prog-rock credentials but during the 1970s her albums were essential listening, regardless of musical preferences. Although I lived on a staple diet of prog in those days, the 1975 The Hissing Of Summer Lawns album is one of my personal favourites from the period. Fish was similarly smitten, when a decade later, he adapted lines from the title song for Marillion's Lavender (which isn't mentioned in this book). When Joni started out in the 60s, her acoustic songs were inevitably tagged as "folk", but over the years she's embraced various styles including world music and jazz.
Author, journalist, musician and producer Peter Kearns hails from New Zealand and has two previous On Track books to his credit; on Elton John and 10cc. At 158 pages, plus a 16 page colour section, this is one of the longest books in the series and discusses all of Joni's studio albums up to and including Shine from 2007. This is followed by a single page Epilogue, which brings things almost up to date. I say almost because the book was completed before the October 2020 release of Archives - Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963 - 1967) therefore missing out a good deal of previously unreleased material.
Unlike many books in the On Track series, separate chapters listing live recordings and compilations are not included, although these are referred to in the general narrative. For American artists of a certain vintage, orchestral re-recordings of familiar songs have become very much in-vogue of late but Joni was ahead of the game. Accordingly, individual chapters are dedicated to the Both Sides Now and Travelogue albums from 2000 and 2002 respectively.
Kearns is clearly musically literate, with an almost academic approach when discussing the music with references to tritones, keys and chords. This will undoubtedly appeal to the serious musicians out there, although fundamental aspects of the songs like melody, mood and tempo are sometimes sketchy. Instead, the lyrics and the stories behind the songs are the main focus of attention, which is not surprising given Joni's often autobiographical approach to her song writing. To support his analysis, Kearns includes extracts from the lyrics for many of the songs.
This is a book that will appeal to Joni Mitchell devotees who will appreciate Kearns' analytical approach and erudite writing. Even die-hard fans may discover something new about a favourite song that may have otherwise passed them by. As such, it's recommended reading.
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