For all the losses we’ve suffered in 2016, we can take comfort in this: Joni Mitchell is still with us. A year ago, that seemed unlikely. When news broke that the singer-songwriter had suffered a brain aneurysm back in March of 2015, her fans braced themselves, mentally preparing their tributes, wondering which lyric to quote and which aspect of her career to spotlight. None of that would’ve been easy for anyone who loves Mitchell. When she does go, she’s going to deserve an appreciation on the scale of a David Bowie or Prince (the latter of whom was a fervent Joni fan himself). But because she’s been less active musically over the past couple of decades, she may not get her due. It’s possible that Mitchell’s cultural significance is being forgotten, even with all the young women who still sidle up to a piano and try to write their own version of Blue.
The basic arc of Mitchell’s early life is this: born in Canada, nurtured in the same folk scene as Neil Young, found success in L.A. in the late 1960s as a songwriter and a performer, then went on a run of great albums that’s rarely been matched by any entertainer. From 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon to 1976’s Hejira, Mitchell was in full command of her craft, penning memorable songs that combined the intimacy of a journal entry, the character development of a playwright, and the insight of a poet. At the same time, Mitchell opened up the possibilities of folk-rooted music, eschewing the bluesy kick and psychedelic jangle of her male contemporaries and instead exploring jazz and retro-pop. She produced herself, commanding an assortment of some of the best players in the business to go to places they’d never been before. And she sold records, routinely going gold and platinum in her heyday.
Unlike some of the artists she was compared to in the early ’70s, though, Mitchell’s wilderness years weren’t as fruitful. The similarly adventurous Young and Bob Dylan have had multiple stumbles that they overcame, but post-Hejira, Mitchell’s albums have often been more difficult for longtime supporters to embrace, and lighter on timeless material. In the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, her output tapered off to a new LP every three or four years, until she finally stopped—perhaps for good—with 2007’s underrated Shine. There are some fantastic songs sprinkled across the back half of the Mitchell discography, but they’re often surrounded by blunt political statements and less inspired tracks that make the gems harder to spot.
Nevertheless, Mitchell continues to influence songwriters and performers—especially those inclined to bare their souls, and even more especially those who attempt it while being female. As the ’60s gave way to the ’70s, in an era and a scene where women were often treated as ornamentation, Mitchell aspired to be more like Nina Simone. She took chances with her music, broke new ground with her lyrics, and outclassed most of her male counterparts with how well she fused the two, in recordings with a rare elegance and precision.
This Power Hour is mostly focused on some of Mitchell’s lesser-known songs—mostly from her peerless 1970s run, but with a few from her under-explored later albums. There’s no “Big Yellow Taxi” or “Help Me” on this playlist (or “Chelsea Morning,” “This Flight Tonight,” “Both Sides Now,” “Woodstock,” “River,” “The Circle Game,” “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio,” “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” “Raised On Robbery,” “Carey,” “Chinese Café,” or, most painfully, “Free Man In Paris”). The one quasi-exception is “Coyote,” which was never a hit per se, but is one of Mitchell’s more popular pieces because of its appearance in The Band’s concert film The Last Waltz. It’s here because it ties so much of this music together, with its simple structure, jazzy arrangement, and plainspoken story of one woman’s romantic restlessness.
Most of the folk-trained songwriters who became superstars in the 1970s were known for sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar, singing their stories. The dominant image of Mitchell, though, is of a woman at a piano, seen in profile, with long, straight hair obscuring half her face as she reveals something strikingly honest. The 1971 masterpiece Blue represents Mitchell’s peak in this mode; but occasionally over the next few records she’d return to the stripped-down style of “one lady, 88 keys.” “See You Sometime,” from For The Roses, is the equal of anything from Blue. Like the best of Mitchell’s confessionals it alternates between the confidence of someone who knows what she wants—in this case companionship and casual sex—and the quiet desperation that springs from not having control of what another person does. Rumor has it that the line “pack your suspenders” in this song is a direct reference to James Taylor, as is, “You know I’m not after a piece of your fortune or your fame / ’Cause I’ve tasted mine.” But even those of us who’ve never dated a rich folk-rock star can identify with the naked vulnerability at the end of “See You Sometime,” where Mitchell acknowledges that things didn’t end well with the man she’s singing to, but admits she still wants him.
With the album Court And Spark, Mitchell followed up on the jazz-fusion experiments of 1972’s For The Roses and made a new-model singer-songwriter album, employing some of the best of L.A.’s session players to create something with a pop sensibility and an offbeat swing. She kicks the LP off with a title track that eases into the new sound, starting with just her at the piano before gradually adding light touches of bass, brushed drums, and slide guitar. Lyrically, the song represents a subtle evolution too. “Court And Spark” is another turbulent romantic ballad about two lovers failing to tame each other, but the imagery is starting to become more abstract and allusive, telling a more complicated story. The betrothed this time out is less a flesh-and-blood person than a difficult ideal—and one that the singer ultimately admits she can’t hold.
Early in Mitchell’s career, the rock press often wrote about her as some kind of insatiable starchild, pinballing between the beds of generational icons. But as she began to transition from hippie anthems and poetic character sketches on her third album Ladies Of The Canyon, critics caught up to what was so remarkable about the actual songwriting. In a scene dominated by freaky dudes and brassy dames, Mitchell was offering a genuinely distinctive perspective on what it was like to be a woman in Southern California, enduring the endless summers of love. Ladies Of The Canyon’s title track holds to the basic form of trilling faerie-folk that Mitchell relied on so often on her first two records, but the lyrics paint a warmer, simpler picture of a community of gals (including underground cartoonist Trina Robbins) sharing their creativity and generosity with each other. No boys needed.
The poppier jazz of Court And Spark and its misunderstood follow-up The Hissing Of Summer Lawns shifted into something more free-form when Mitchell hooked up with fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius. His loose playing gave the singer a bed to stretch out across on the haunting Hejira and the artsy Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. The title track of the former doesn’t dispense with compositional structure: It features a succession of similarly pitched and arranged verses and no chorus, which wasn’t that unusual for Mitchell. What’s so remarkable about “Hejira” is its sense of atmosphere. As she sings about restlessly, endlessly traveling, Mitchell describes what she sees out the window, and goes off on digressive tangents about the man on her mind, all while Pastorius noodles away in a manner that reflects the stream-of-consciousness. The song aches with ennui, but as its composer herself explains, “There’s comfort in melancholy.”
Court And Spark was such a huge critical and commercial hit that it raised expectations among pop/rock devotees, many of whom dearly wanted a musically sophisticated, lyrically intelligent female artist to champion. But whatever it was these tastemakers were looking for, they didn’t immediately find it in Mitchell’s follow-up The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, which was unaccountably picked apart for being decadently experimental. In retrospect—and especially in comparison with how Mitchell would spend the rest of the ’70s—Hissing really isn’t that big of a departure from Court. The orchestrations at times are a lot richer, as in “The Boho Dance,” where the flute-hangings and guitar shimmer sound downright cinematic. But while the words to “The Boho Dance” continue the previous album’s slow drift away from direct meaning, it’s not that hard to register the mostly critical eye that Mitchell turns onto the world of pretentious artistes. What keeps the song from being shrilly disapproving (as some of the records to come would be) are the lovingly observed little details, like the mention of a well-dressed lady with runs in her nylons. During her creative peak, Mitchell could always be counted on to note something so poignantly human.
When Shine came out in 2007, it seemed to get more attention for being released by Starbucks than for the actual music on it—which was a shame, because not only is this record the last collection of original songs that Mitchell has released to date, but at the time it was her best album in 25 years. Though still in the cranky protest-song mode of her latter era, Mitchell tempers her anger in songs like the pre-apocalyptic “If I Had A Heart,” which offers a return to the gently jazzy and exploratory sound of Hejira. Deeper, smokier voice aside, this is the classic Mitchell, exemplifying an LP that’s overdue for a critical reappraisal.
By the end of the ’70s, Mitchell had hit something of a creative dead end with jazz, so after taking a couple of years off, she reemerged at the start of the ’80s with an unexpected and bracing new sound, inspired by the polyrhythmic beats and modern sheen of New Wave. Wild Things Run Fast failed to land her back on the charts, and her pursuit of a contemporary feel would lead to some clunky production on the rest of her ’80s releases. But for one album at least, Mitchell was back to showing her peers how to be innovative and expressive at the same time. “Underneath The Streetlight” is a fine example of Wild Things Run Fast at its brightest and most charming. The pop and rock trappings don’t keep this from being a constantly surprising number, pivoting from one part to another in mere seconds. The explosion of vivid imagery and unabashed romanticism is a welcome change from the dourness that had dominated the previous half-decade.
The seamless perfection of Court And Spark is evident in the song that kicks off the record’s side two. A sparse, anxious lament, “Car On A Hill” draws emotional power from its bursts of brass and its John Guerin drum track (which functions almost like a lead instrument). Add to that Mitchell’s all-too-relatable lyrics about a woman waiting to see her wandering man’s vehicle pull in, and in just two verses, a long break, and a coda, “Car On A Hill” evokes the feeling of a cherished relationship slipping away.
In keeping with the movie-soundtrack vibe of The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, “Edith And The Kingpin” could almost pass for a Joni-fied version of a blaxploitation anthem for some never-released Pam Grier picture. The critics who didn’t get the album seemed confused by songs like this, which are less overtly personal than those on Blue, For The Roses, or Court And Spark. But the music sounds so wonderful now, as Mitchell plays with all the instrumental components available to her in the studio and lets her writing follow where the band takes her. It’s no wonder that Prince considered Mitchell one of his favorite artists, and this record her best work. Something like “Edith And The Kingpin” is so imaginative, and so untethered from anyone’s demands but its creator’s.
The seeds for The Hissing Of Summer Lawns were planted in this For The Roses song even more than in Court And Spark. In addition to being an “Edith And The Kingpin”-like sojourn into someplace alternately alluring and menacing—in this case a heroin addict’s shooting gallery—“Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire” uses bleating sax and undertones of funky electric guitar in an open-ended way, eventually just letting the instruments take over as the character in the song slips into a narcotic stupor.
Though it first appeared on the 1974 live album Miles Of Aisles, “Jericho” fits better onto Mitchell’s aggressively odd double-album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, where it stands as a moment of relative normalcy. Once again, Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass changes the tone of the track, which in its original form slots alongside Mitchell’s other heart-on-the-sleeve songs, but on Don Juan sounds aloof. There’s a fascinating pull between words that speak of unchecked passion and a vocal performance that’s more like someone distantly recalling the wild child she once was.
Between Wild Things Run Fast and Shine, Mitchell’s albums typically featured one or two standouts and a lot of songs that couldn’t punch through the heavy-handed production. Night Ride Home is one of the better overall LPs from this stretch, mainly because it strips back the instrumentation. The light touch on “Cherokee Louise” helps Mitchell pull the rug out from the listener. A sort of companion piece to Hejira’s majestic paean to girlhood friendship “Song For Sharon” (which was way too long to make this playlist, unfortunately), “Cherokee Louise” describes coming of age in Canada alongside a pal who lived with a foster dad that sexually abused her, while the singer went home to parents who just yelled at her a lot for being rebellious. That’s grim subject matter, handled in a matter-of-fact way by Mitchell, who throughout the song sounds lost in a reverie, unwilling or unable to separate the good memories from the horrific.
One of the stranger albums in the Mitchell discography, Travelogue offers two discs’ worth of the singer-songwriter covering herself, with a full orchestra as the accompaniment to the lower, more resonant voice she’d developed in her late 50s. It’s a lovely collection overall, though the Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’s “Otis And Marlena” is one of the few performances that’s better in the remade version than it was the original. The symphonic arrangement and deep rasp provide a pleasing texture to Mitchell’s moment-in-time character sketch, about a vacationing couple watching news of a terrorist attack while checking into their cheap Miami hotel. The descriptions are as vivid as ever—the Foster Grants, the “grand parades of cellulite,” etc.—but the passage of time and Mitchell’s changing approach to the song have made it seem sweeter and less sneering.
Another of the short, loopy numbers from Wild Things Run Fast, the title track is one of the most un-Joni songs she’s ever recorded—one that’s almost like Blondie at times. On closer listen though, “Wild Things Run Fast” is a chopped-up compression of a lot of the pop and jazz moves that Mitchell had been making for the previous 10 years. It just replaces the long exhalations of Hejira with hyperventilation.
It’s a fool’s game to try and single out any one Joni Mitchell song as her best—or even her most definitive. But as noted in the intro, “Coyote” does exist at a perfect nexus between all of the 1970s refinements to her style. Mostly written while touring with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, “Coyote” is like an answer-song to Dylan’s own era-defining “Tangled Up In Blue.” A similar tumble of words spills out of Mitchell, as she describes life on the road, fueled by cocaine and a procession of lovers. And of all the not-to-be couples in the Mitchell songbook, there’s none as fully fleshed out as the singer and her coyote. She’s a night owl with a job that whisks her around the world; he’s a taciturn cowboy who looks and acts like Sam Shepard. As so often happens in Mitchell’s songs—and in her life—the two collide for a little while then press on, leaving inspiration in the wreckage.
Blue features one Mitchell classic after another, justifying its status as one of the greatest albums of its era. But it’s the final song on the record that really illuminates what made her such a superior songwriter. For two verses, a pair of old friends—and most likely former lovers—meet in a bar and resume all their old arguments about romanticism and cynicism and why neither of them will ever be satisfied. Then in the third verse, the woman notes that her Richard got married and settled down in the suburbs, while she now drinks alone, clinging with an ever-loosening grip to the life of stubborn independence that they both once thought defined them. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is another piano ballad like “See You Sometime,” but the specificity of the lyrics makes it even more emotionally devastating. It describes a dying dream, shared by many, in lines so cutting and clear that this qualifies as one of the best songs, poems, and short stories of the 20th century.