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Life from both sides Print-ready version

Cementing her legacy as pop’s greatest storyteller, Joni Mitchell doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of her work even as her career enters its twilight.

by Matthew Dwyer
PopMatters
August 15, 2023

After a near-fatal brain aneurysm in 2015, Joni Mitchell rarely returned to the stage. With the help of Brandi Carlile, Mitchell surprised the crowd at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival with her first performance at the venue in 53 years. Carlisle was an integral member of the infamous "Joni Jams", informal music sessions hosted at Mitchell's Los Angeles home for her modern-day disciples. However, playing at the Newport Folk Festival was one of the defining moments of Mitchell's early career in the late 1960s. In 1967, at a brief appearance at the festival, Mitchell, introduced by Judy Collins, stunned the crowd with her original compositions, including "The Circle Game", "Michael From Mountains", and "Chelsea Morning".

Crossing paths with Collins became integral to launching Mitchell's career, as Collins recorded "Michael" and "Both Sides Now" for her 1967 album Wildflowers. This method of bringing attention to new songwriters was characteristic of the late 1960s folk-rock movement. Mitchell gained popularity not only from Collins' renditions of her songs but from Tom Rush's recording of "Urge for Going". Additionally, Collins brought attention to the budding songwriter Leonard Cohen, recording songs like "Blue Raincoat" for 1971's Living. Cohen and Mitchell met at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, starting the romance that would later inspire Mitchell's "Rainy Night House".

Mitchell's performance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival symbolizes how the personal and the artistic were so often combined in the late 1960s singer-songwriter movement centered in Laurel Canyon, California. At Newport, a live album with 12 tracks from this performance by Mitchell and an ensemble including Carlisle, Marcus Mumford, Taylor Goldsmith, and Celisse mirror the spirit of camaraderie that existed between the founding songwriters of this movement. In her introduction, Carlile lists details of Mitchell's house observed during "Joni Jams", including a bathroom door with cats painted on it: a genuine affection creates a homey atmosphere.

However, Carlile's voice sometimes overshadows Mitchell's newfound alto, an intriguing new area in her vocal range that symbolizes the current wise and withdrawn period of her life. On "A Case of You", Carlile's voice soars in the chorus, while Mitchell anchors each hook with a firm "I'd still be on my feet", emblematic of her perseverance. Carlile's vocal chops, while impressive, revel in their smoothness to the point that they center the song around themselves instead of providing a vessel for Mitchell to showcase her sustained vocal capabilities on a classic track.

It is safe to say that, at 79, Mitchell has seen life from both sides. At the age of 23, when she first wrote the hit "Both Sides Now", she was dismissed by her then-husband, Chuck Mitchell, who didn't believe that a young writer could have developed such a multifaceted view of life. While condescending, that remark also misses the nature of the song, which is about the persistence of ambiguity. ("It's life's illusions I recall / I really don't know life at all," Mitchell says.) The many lives that this song has taken on since its release is proof of its message. Mitchell recorded a strings-backed, jazz-inspired version of the track for her 2000 album of the same name, showcasing the maturity of her voice and her clear mastery of the song's prenatural wisdom.

At the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, Mitchell revealed how "Both Sides Now" will always be finding new ways to grow into itself, as, while taking the vocal lead, she brought a lightness to the song reminiscent of her youthful delivery on the original 1969 recording, while her new lower vocal range mirrored the wisdom conveyed in the 2000 version. When Mitchell concludes, "Something's lost, but something's gained in living every day," her melancholy reminds the audience that the true fruition of the song's message has required its creator to overcome great struggles. Its creator must revisit it from several vantage points to ensure it holds up in the face of its claims.

Similarly, Mitchell takes the lead on the closing track, "The Circle Game". Much like this performance, the song is a celebration and a mourning of the passage of time. On At Newport, Mitchell's trademark enthusiasm for engaging the crowd shines when she reminds the audience that it is a sing-along, a ritual she has repeated while performing this song since she first penned it, as documented in Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967). While "The Circle Game" chronicles one boy's coming of age, the song has become a way for humans to commiserate about a common struggle: succumbing to the passage of time. Mitchell's insistence that it be a sing-along underscores the universal nature of the themes. However, the resulting dialogue, in which emotions are conveyed back and forth in a cyclical nature between the audience and singer, also embodies them.

In 2004, Mitchell told NPR that she began writing songs after giving up her daughter for adoption and stopped writing when they were reunited. "It seemed like I mothered the world until I got my own family," she said. On At Newport, Mitchell reprises that role, dispensing her wisdom without youthful inflection. As a referendum on her biggest hits, the new live album helps Mitchell become a vessel for cementing her legacy. Although it may seem discomforting to hear a 79-year-old admit that she still doesn't know life at all, such an admission in and of itself reinforces Mitchell's belief that many of life's mysteries are unsolvable: it's the way we go about chronicling them that redeems us. Although Mitchell's philosophy may remain rooted in ambiguity, as a performer, her ability to connect with the audience and convey a message reminds listeners that there are no illusions to be recalled regarding her powers of communication.

While introducing "Amelia", performed by Taylor Goldsmith, Mitchell talks about the inspiration for the Hejira album: driving cross-country without a driver's license. This tenacity symbolizes Mitchell's career overall. Perhaps supported by the fact that Mitchell's work, by her admission, "contained the question of... what themes [a pop song] could hold without collapsing..." she has traversed genres over a nearly 60-year-long career, venturing into jazz, rock, and folk, never letting critics prevent her from chasing her muse. Mitchell passes on this penchant for rebellion to a new generation on At Newport by not only defying expectations about her ability to perform at this stage in her life but by approaching her work with the compassion it deserves.

Mitchell's work, especially her early work, may remain an economically viable asset. Still, her weathered vocals and wise demeanor on At Newport remind the audience she remains firmly planted on the artistic side of things. Although a dual perspective is useful, in terms of self-preservation, Mitchell knows when to approach her work with tunnel vision. On "Amelia", inspired by Amelia Earheart, Mitchell said, "She was swallowed by the sky or by the sea / Like me she had a dream to fly." Mitchell has certainly triumphed over her most recent obstacles, but she doesn't shy away from tragedy or heartbreak in her work. Turning those emotions into a legendary career is undoubtedly one way to look at them from both sides.

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Added to Library on August 16, 2023. (1009)

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