Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Joni Mitchell and the Kingpin

In and out of her Laurel Canyon cottage, the kind of place you'd expect Henry Miller, came lovers and other musicians – Graham Nash, James Taylor, Stephen Stills…  That folky girl who had them sitting around Indian style singing "The Circle Game" was all grown up, and Blue (AM10) was what she had to show for it. Joni Mitchell's Blue is the perfect album: simple, phenomenal musicianship, a concept, lyrics that unfold on a myriad of levels.  The songstress (her voice the most dominant instrument on the album) believes the glass is half-full, but can't help to notice it is also half-empty (and, of course, the glass is refillable); it's that tinge of bitterness that gives each song its edge and scope.  Later she'll express it in just one line: "Oh, sour grapes, because I lost my heart" (Court and Spark).  Blue is an album culled from the best of the sixties.  From "River" to "A Case of You," Joni writes the book on storytelling.  There is more than the commonality in titles between this recording and Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. The latter is widely recognized as a high water mark in jazz – a series of modal compositions full of space and economy of delivery. Mitchell, with minimal instrumentation, achieves the same spatial dynamics, compositions that are inventive and sparse.  Not to mention lyrics like… 

"'I am as constant as the northern star.'
'Constantly in the darkness; where’s that at?  If you want me I’ll be in the bar.'"

That’s TS Eliot or Anne Sexton there; so simply beautiful.

Joni went home after Blue; not California: Canada, and the result, For the Roses (AM8), was like Court and Spark practice; multi-layered madness, crazy harmonies and a myriad of Joni's. Her voice hadn't matured, it succumbed instead to cigarettes, and if chain-smoking ever did anyone justice, well it was us.  Side one continues Joni's pre-70s groove, vacillating from love song to social observation with several truly topical pieces.  One in particular "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," describes so beautifully heroin addiction, growing in prevalence in the So. Cal. scene and part of the reason Joni took refuge in Saskatoon.  Side one starts off where Blue ended.

On side two we even get a hit and some radio play, ironically, in "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," a song in which it became obvious that Joni would shirk song structure for good, but it's an altogether new magic we find in "See You Sometime" and "Electricity." This is our first glimpse of the inimitable Joni. "Blonde in the Bleachers" is the best song ever written about a rock star on the road. "It seems like you've got to give up such a piece of your soul when you give up the chase," she sings, about finding identity in yourself and meaning in whoever you fuck. The songs weren't protest, they were reflection instead allowing the listener to determine the politicism rather than pounding her over the head with it.  The album's standout, particularly in this vein, is "Woman of Heart and Mind:" "Drive your bargains, push your papers, win your medals, fuck your strangers; don't it leave you on the empty side?"  It isn't protest, it's a call-out, and so much more effective because of it.

Few artists have more than one AM10, but in less than two years came Court and Spark (AM10).  No one anticipated it; it was Blue to the nth degree.  It was all of the above plus a jazz army. Court and Spark is gorgeous on every level and marked a new direction, a second wind, Joni’s perfect years; and how many artists are still chasing this dream today?  It is the precursor to Aja (AM10) and Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun (AM9), not to mention each successive Mitchell album through Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. I don’t listen to AM10s much, they carry with them baggage and too much expectation; I have to devote my time, calm my psyche, vacuum first, but I listen to Blue and to Court and Spark. I listen to them all the time.  I have "Just Like This Train" on in the background as I write this. Scratch that; it's merely in my head.

There's something a little dangerous or awry about The Hissing of Summer Lawns.  Things have gone terribly wrong in Los Angeles.  It's no longer relationships and parties, but drug deals and unhappy marriages; it's the dysfunctional city of Alan Rudolph's Welcome to L.A.  Hissing is a much more morose album because of it.  "California" has effectively fallen into the ocean (fellow Angelenos will comprehend that allusion).  The range of influences is astonishing: the impenetrable-yet-gorgeous "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" and the greatest song ever written about someone named Edith are so lovely, despite the smog and the cocaine and the infidelity.  The recurring lyrical theme is married life in high society, and Joni delivers her brutal verdict in both the title track and the phenomenal "Harry's House." "The Jungle Line", meanwhile, announces an altogether different Joni Mitchell - a purely conceptual piece, lyrically and musically, to the extent that she drowns out her guitar with the drone of a synthesizer and the abstract intellectualism of her words.  This song, along with the somewhat pretentious finale, "Shadows and Light," are exhibit A for why this album was a bullseye for reviewers.  Nonetheless, time has etched The Hissing of Summer Lawns into my canon, those songs I can hear even when they're not playing ("Songs are like tattoos").  The Hissing of Summer Lawns is an AM9.

I'm less enamored with Hejira (AM8 - interestingly, this is an LP of which I often contradict myself) and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (AM7), despite or because of the minimalist approach, and despite, again, the unsurpassed refrains and riffs from Jaco Pastorius. Hejira is a critical feast. Reviewers ate it up, it tops so many of their lists, but when I thumb through my albums, these are not the ones I choose often. Instead, I create a playlist on iTunes: I'll play "Overture/Cotton Avenue" (mostly for that single riff of Jaco's), I'll let it slide into "Talk to Me." Then comes "Refuge of the Roads" and "Coyote." I mix it up a bit. I usually avoid the time consuming "Paprika Plans." These are albums anyone else would be jealous of.

It's hard to reach for the 8s and the 7s when an artist has two 10s and a 9. But that's a terrible sentence. Indeed the goal at AM is to put a number on it, yet a sentence like that makes the whole concept seem wrong. Beauty isn't by the numbers, and Joni Mitchell has just one beautiful album after another.