Joni Mitchell isn’t always given the respect she deserves. In her prime she was often labelled in terms of her famous boyfriends; Rolling Stone infamously labelled her the Queen of El Lay in a 1971 piece. There’s also a perception of her as a folk singer, but that only covers the first phase of her long career. In the 1970s Mitchell released a string of great albums that place her as among the most important solo artists of the rock era, fit to rank among greats like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and David Bowie, as she explored singer-songwriter and jazz territory, as well as the spaces in between.
A childhood bout of polio meant that Joni Mitchell’s fingers were weak, and she was unable to play a guitar conventionally, forcing her to use unconventional tunings. She began her career as a folk singer – compositions like ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Chelsea Morning’ were recorded by other artists before Mitchell released her debut album. Her early albums have some well known songs, but aren’t as confident or coherent as her later work – it wasn’t until 1971’s Blue, where she simplified her approach, that she made a truly great album. She followed Blue with a string of great records, where she gradually morphed into a unique jazz-folk hybridization.
In the late seventies, she lost her way somewhat, with a sprawling double album (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter) and a collaboration with the recently deceased Charles Mingus (Mingus), which are both worthy but a step down from her peak. I haven’t heard any of her albums after 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, but 1991’s Night Ride Home is often acknowledged as her late career highlight.
Joni Mitchell Album Reviews
Song To A Seagull
Song To A Seagull is an uncertain start to Mitchell’s stellar career. Her melodies are often fey and her voice high and clear like Joan Baez. It’s a warning sign when Mitchell dedicates the album to Mr Kratzman “who taught me to love words”; these songs are too full of words for their own good. While there are signs of the rich imagery and emotional economy to come, there’s also sophomoric poetry like “I looked thru window-glass at streets and Nathan grumbled at the grey.” Mitchell’s virtually solo on acoustic guitar here, with the support only coming from Stephen Stills on bass on the irritating ‘Night In The City’.
Culled from her early live sets – Mitchell has dozens of songs from her early career that were never recorded – the songs are largely chosen to fit a theme. Songs that were already hits for other artists, such as ‘Both Sides Now’, are overlooked in favour of a ten song cycle, the first half of which is titled “I came to the city” and the second half “Out of the city and down to the seaside.” Outside the autobiographical symmetry of the opener ‘I Had A King’, about the breakup of her marriage with singer-songwriter Chuck Mitchell, and the closing ‘Cactus Tree’, with references to her then boyfriend and producer David Crosby (“he takes her to a schooner and he treats her like a Queen”), it’s hard to get past the complex and flowery songs.
Song To A Seagull is a fascinating record in Mitchell’s development though; the hippie romantic narration here is a long way from the cutting emotion of Blue, just three years and three albums later.
Joni Mitchell’s second album enhanced her reputation, winning a Grammy for best folk album. Clouds is an interesting album to rate – it’s a very good folk album, with some great songs, and I’m sure that some fans prefer folk-oriented Joni and regard it as the pinnacle of her career. But in my opinion, the simple presentation counts against it – it’s performed solely by Mitchell, accompanying herself on guitar, apart from the a capella ‘The Fiddle and the Drum’, and it’s less interesting than her more idiosyncratic later work.
Although it draws from songs she’d had in her stockpile – Live at the Second Fret 1966 features ‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’, Clouds is tangibly more mature lyrically than her debut with fewer hippie overtones and less verbosity. There are at least two stone cold Joni Mitchell classics on Clouds; it’s difficult to talk too much about ‘Both Sides Now’ since it’s a pop standard, but it’s a masterpiece of lyric writing – the three verses symmetrically examining clouds, love, and life. ‘That Song About The Midway’ is a gorgeous melody, with Mitchell’s voice effortlessly hitting high notes. The starkness of ‘The Fiddle And The Drum’ disrupts the flow, but overall Clouds is her most accomplished early work.
Clouds might be a milestone of 1960s folk, but Mitchell was just getting started.
Ladies of the Canyon
Ladies of the Canyon is more varied and sophisticated than Clouds – Mitchell jumps between guitar and piano, multi-tracks her own vocals, and has some backup musicians in places. But it’s also a frustrating album – she sabotages some of the better material, and many of these songs are better presented in 1974’s Miles of Aisles. ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is probably the biggest potential hit she’s written, but she ends with strange vocal shenanigans, while ‘Woodstock’ is presented in a slow and atmospheric electric piano arrangement.
Ladies of the Canyon is also sequenced strangely, with the three most famous songs – ‘Big Yello Taxi’, ‘Woodstock; and the folkie singalong of ‘The Circle Game’ taking the last three spots on the album. But Mitchell is approaching her peak period, and there is plenty of rich album material – ‘The Arrangement’ is an interesting foretaste of the themes explored on ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’, while ‘For Free’ has a pretty vocal line and clarinet. But conversely she’s not writing verse/chorus songs most of the time, and some of the material is difficult to access – I’ve listened to Ladies of the Canyon plenty of times, but I still can’t remember songs like ‘The Priest’ or ‘Blue Boy’.
Ladies of the Canyon is a solid entry in Joni Mitchell’s discography, but it’s also frustrating.
In 1971, the singer-songwriter movement was in full swing, and Joni Mitchell simplified and darkened her approach to match. She was already part of the movement’s inner circle, having previously been involved with David Crosby and Graham Nash and now with James Taylor, and cemented her authenticity with the painfully open Blue.
While the first two songs are upbeat about promising relationships, Blue becomes more forthright with ‘Little Green’, about the child Joni had to give up for adoption. ‘This Flight Tonight’ details fear of flying, while ‘River’ details a bitter relationship breakup: “I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I ever had.” By the last two songs, Mitchell has completely lost faith in relationships; ‘A Case of You’ declares that “You are in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so sweet/I could drink a case of you darling and I would still be on my feet,” while ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ tells the story of a friend who loses his charm when he is seduced by a life of bland normality. The clumsiness of the lyrics “Richard got married to a figure skater/and he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee perculator,” perfectly captures the replacement of art and beauty by materialism and blandness.
While Blue is superb, her later trio of jazz inflected albums, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, have more re-listening value; Blue doesn’t stand up to repeated listening as well, as it relies on emotional impact rather than musical complexity and texture. Hence, the best treatment for Blue is to pull it out occasionally and be surprised by the effective simplicity and honesty, rather than overplaying it. As well as playing her usual piano and guitar, Joni also makes use of the Appalachian Dulcimer on several tracks, leading to a resurgence in the instrument’s popularity.
For The Roses
The transitional album that’s often overlooked between the twin peaks of Blue and Court And Spark, For The Roses is underwhelming only because it’s merely a very good album. The arrangements are fuller than ever before, with lots of Joni’s fluid piano parts, although closing song ‘Judgement Of The Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Theme)’ would have benefited from a full string section. The single, ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’ is slight, which is one reason why For The Roses may have been overlooked. Like Ladies of the Canyon, it’s somewhat inscrutable, but this time the effort is well worthwhile.
‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ is an evocative tale of heroin addiction, with James Burton adding some bite with his electric guitar part. The title track is a delicate attack on the commercial focus of the music scene in general (“I guess I seem ungrateful/With my teeth sunk in the hand/That brings me things/I can’t give up just yet”) and ex-lover James Taylor in particular (“Remember the days you used to….pour your simple sorrow/To the soundhole and your knee/And now you’re seen/on giant screens/And at parties for the press”). It’s the closing three songs that provide the greatest impact; ‘Blonde In the Bleachers’ is perhaps the most musically immediate song, although it’s still incredibly harmonically complex, and Stephen Stills adds musical backbone for the conclusion. ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’ has a driving power despite its gentle guitar accompaniment, while the Beethoven themed ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars’ has typically excellent lyrics (“Strike every chord that you feel/That broken trees/And elephant ivories/Conceal”).
You should pick up the surrounding albums first, as For The Roses is more obtuse and difficult to grasp, but it’s top drawer Mitchell, and should be remembered as one of her finest achievements.
Court and Spark
Joni Mitchell complained to a friend that she disliked the bass players she’d tried to record with to date, describing them as placing “white picket fences” through her music, leading to her erasing them from her recordings. Her friend suggested she try working with jazz musicians instead, and Court and Spark is her first album to use a full band on most tracks, working with jazz band The LA Express.
Court and Spark was both Joni’s commercial high point and arguably her best album, blending approachable tunes and arrangements with confessional lyrics. The single ‘Help Me’ sounds more like a hit than anything else Mitchell has recorded, while ‘Free Man in Paris’ soars in the chorus with Crosby and Nash on backing vocals. ‘Car On A Hill’, about being stood up on a date with Jackson Browne, is arguably the centrepiece, but my favourite is the opening title track, a low key piano piece.
The music is extremely sleek and stylish, yet the lyrics are confessional and heartfelt enough to stop Court and Spark from wandering into adult contemporary territory.
Miles of Aisles
Recorded on the Court And Spark tour, Joni Mitchell takes the smooth jazz approach of Court And Spark to some of her back catalogue’s highlights, and performs gorgeous solo versions of others. At this stage Mitchell already had an excellent selection of tunes at her disposal, and she’s able to skip over her first two albums almost entirely, leave out other key tracks like ‘River’ and ‘California’, take only one track from Court and Spark (the low key ‘People’s Parties’), and still put together a stellar track-list. There are more than enough reinventions to make this album worthwhile even for those already familiar with the rest of her catalogue.
A lot of the earlier songs are beefed up; the understated jazz feel on ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’ is much more appealing than their somewhat cheesy studio versions. If the pop jazz crossover is a little overbearing on the ska of ‘Carey’, it’s invigorating on ‘Woodstock’, which blows away the obtuse studio version. The two new songs, ‘Jericho’ and ‘Love or Money’ are both excellent; the former eventually turned up on 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, while I inexplicably love the line “long lonely legs/bruised from banging into things” from the latter. Mitchell’s stage presence is intriguing; she doesn’t seem entirely natural as a live performer – edgy and awkward at times (“We’ve got to get ourselves back to some semblance of a garden” she ad-libs in ‘Woodstock’) – but earnest and sometimes funny (the impersonation of the crusty waitress in ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’).
Miles of Aisles isn’t completely essential, but if you enjoy Mitchell’s studio albums from the same era it’s enjoyable nonetheless and well worth picking up.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns
The Hissing of Summer Lawns is a provocative followup to Court and Spark; Mitchell’s persona changes from the demure woman in search of love to a feminist social commentator. “It takes a heart like Mary’s these days/When your man gets weak” is one representative couplet. This album was savaged by Rolling Stone upon release, although the detailed and textured jazz isn’t far removed from what Steely Dan were producing at the same time, so it’s probably the lyrical content that upset them.
Sonically The Hissing of Summer Lawns augments the bright jazz of Court and Spark with even more detail; sophisticated lyrical tunes like ‘Shades of Scarlett Conquering’ and ‘The Boho Dance’ that rank among Mitchell’s very best. ‘Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow’ might be my favourite Mitchell song ever, as it chugs away using country textures of pedal steel and dobro on top of the jazz. ‘Harry’s House’ is an accomplished multi-part suite. It’s not quite as consistent as her very best albums; ‘The Jungle Line’ was reportedly the first piece of popular music to use sampled African rhythms as Joni sings and plays keyboards and guitar over her Warrior Drummers of Burundi LP, but it doesn’t stand up to repeated listening, while ‘Shadows and Light’ is a weird closer with just keyboards and Joni’s vocals.
The Hissing of Summer Lawns is not Mitchell’s most consistent work, but it contains some of her very best and most intriguing tracks.
Hejira is the Arabic word for departure, which is derived from Hegira: the story of the flight of Mohammed from Mecca in 622 AD. In HejiraMitchell tells of her own journey of an escape from a failed relationship with LA Express drummer John Guerin, in the form of a road journey across America and Canada. Along the way she records the people that she meets (‘Coyote’, ‘Strange Boy’) and reminisces about previous failed relationships (‘Song for Sharon’).
Hejira is very uniform in tone, which can make it difficult to access – apart from the more upbeat ‘Coyote’ and ‘Black Crow’, and the generic jazz of ‘Blue Motel Room’, it’s centered on Mitchell’s guitar picking. She’s accompanied by Weather Report bass player Jaco Pastorius, who’s a notable new collaborator – his busy lines would be an important part of her output in the second half of the 1970s. There are beautiful songs like ‘Amelia’, a tribute to the lost aviator, and the almost nine minutes of relationship musing on ‘Song For Sharon’ is one of Mitchell’s most interesting statements.
It takes a while to penetrate the dense, low key arrangements, but once appreciated, Hejira is one of Mitchell’s strongest works.
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
Joni Mitchell’s albums had steadily become more ambitious throughout her career, but while her previous albums stuck to the standard 10-12 song format, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is a double LP with only 10 tracks, including a side long track in ‘Paprika Plains’. There are moments when she over-reaches, but overall Don Juan is more enjoyable than any other album from outside her 1971-1976 peak run. Jaco Pastorius is back from Hejira, and he’s an important collaborator again here, with his busy basslines providing plenty of melodic interest.
Some of the material is similar to Hejira – the title track, ‘Talk To Me’, and ‘Off Night Backstreet’ are all excellent, and would have easily fitted onto the previous album. ‘Otis and Marlena’ is pretty in its elegant and simple acoustic arrangement. But elsewhere, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is more experimental – ‘Dreamland’ is based around percussion and Chaka Khan’s backing vocal, while ‘The Tenth World’ is Latin percussion and chants. The 16 minutes of ‘Paprika Plains’ is largely improvised, and it drags a little, but it steps up a gear when the percussion hits and there’s enough to reward listening.
It’s certainly less tightly constructed that her previous work, but there’s still enough of interest on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter to make it a solid entry in Mitchell’s catalogue.
Legendary jazz bassist Charles Mingus nominated Joni Mitchell to complete the songs that he was working on before his death. Mitchell wrote lyrics and fleshed out Mingus’ arrangements, enlisting jazz musicians including Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. With only six songs, padded out by snippets of dialogue from Charles Mingus, most of the songs are too drawn out and slow moving to be effective.
At six and a half minutes long, ‘The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey’ is one of the offenders, but it’s atmospheric and interesting with sudden acoustic guitar punctuation. ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, a Mingus standard with lyrics from Mitchell, works fine, simply because it’s a good song. And this album’s one unqualified winner is the fast and funky ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines’, which has more energy than the rest of the album put together and a great bass line from Pastorious; if there were more songs like this and less meanderings like ‘A Chair in the Sky’ and ‘Sweet Sucker Dance’, Mingus would be more entertaining.
I’m sure there are a significant number of Mitchell fans out there who really love this album, and if you’re of a jazz inclination by all means check it out. Mitchell’s decision to revert to straightforward pop with her next album, Wild Things Run Fast, could perhaps be interpreted as an acknowledgement that she went too far off the deep end with Mingus.
Wild Things Run Fast
While descriptions such as “Joni Mitchell’s rock album” and “duet with Lionel Richie” may raise alarm bells, Wild Things Run Fast is more along the lines of smooth jazzy pop. While the music’s generally solid enough, supported by an able cast of jazz musicians including Wayne Shorter, John Guerin and Larry Klein, the lyrics of Wild Things Run Fast are facile by Mitchell’s previous standards. They share the same romantic preoccupations as Court and Spark, but aren’t as idiosyncratic or as elegant; it’s disorienting to hear Mitchell make a straightforward declaration of love in ‘Underneath The Streetlight’.
Wild Things Run Fast starts strongly with ‘Chinese Cafe’, supposedly a dialogue with Carole King about the rigours of aging, that drops hints of ‘Unchained Melody’ before seguing into it. The lyrics for ‘Love’ are a verbatim reading of St. Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians (“love does not boast…..”). Between these two serious bookends, the rest of the fare is more lighthearted. The two rock songs, the title track and the Lionel Richie duet ‘You Dream Flat Tires’, are both surprisingly effective, and there are pretty songs like ‘Moon At The Window’.
But overall, Wild Things Run Fast isn’t essential, and I wouldn’t bother tracking it down until you’ve digested her more substantial seventies output.
Ten Favourite Joni Mitchell Songs
Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow
Blonde In The Bleachers
A Song For Sharon
Court and Spark
Car On A Hill
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter
The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines
That Song About The Midway