In a timely piece as she is named MusiCares’ Person of the Year for 2022, Tim Martin as a late convert finds that there is a Joni Mitchell album for every mood.
Joni Mitchell’s career has covered almost the whole range of American music styles. Her Wikipedia entry lists her genres as: “Folk, rock, jazz, pop”. The list of associated acts runs from The Band to Thomas Dolby, by way of Charles Mingus. When you add in the “iconic” status of several of her albums and it can be hard to know where to start digging among her 19 studio albums.
Where I started was with the blend of folk, jazz and world music of ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’. Hearing the title song on the radio, with Pastorius’ repeated bass slide that fills the place which the bass drum would normally occupy, and reference to ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was a “hang on what’s this” moment. By this time Mitchell was deeply bound into Jazz as the core of her music, and the complex arrangements could at times overwhelm the songs. The simpler ‘Off Night Backstreet’ despite the presence of Jaco Pastorious’ bass is much closer in spirit to her earlier albums.
So I tried some of those more folk-oriented albums, and in my early twenties they didn’t really speak to me. Fast forward a few decades and Pastorius was my entry point for Joni again. This time through ‘Shadows and Light’ particularly the version of ‘A Free Man In Paris’. I took a more gentle walk back through her catalogue, winding up at ‘Ladies of The Canyon’. From the delicate opening of ‘Morning Morgantown’ to the title song and ‘Rainy Night House’ there is nothing I can’t sit and listen to all day. Perhaps ‘Woodstock’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ suffer from familiarity, and cover versions but listening to the latter again today in the light of climate change worries it seems more relevant and prescient than ever. In contrast to the words that seem to tumble out of her on ‘Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter’ the lyrics are considered and measured, although I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before by better writers than me.
Stepping forward, I tried some later albums. The synths of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ were a bit much for me. Thomas Dolby complained about his treatment during the production of this album in his autobiography, but working with an artist like Mitchell, while probably not the easiest job, does I feel need to be approached on her terms. She’s Joni Mitchell, we aren’t. For me ‘Turbulent Indigo’ is where she starts to find the common ground between the folkier earlier material and her more jazzy impressionistic side. Wayne Shorter, who was a fixture on her albums for quite a while, provides textural Soprano Saxophone that counterpoint Mitchell’s singing.
I’ve not mentioned ‘Blue’ yet. Partly because I don’t know what I can add about what is rightly seen as one of the best albums, by anyone, ever. Mostly though because I only started listening to it seriously in recent months and I’m still absorbing it. I suspect it isn’t the place to start with Mitchell. It’s taken me some time for her music to settle into my consciousness, but now it’s there I’m finding that there is a Joni Mitchell album for every mood. Try a few. There will be one that strikes a chord for you, but give it some time. The best Joni needs to be allowed to filter its way into your mind and make a home there.