Listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both sides,now’ & ‘Travelogue’

Joni Mitchell’s songs have been part of my life for over 40 years now, but I will confess that I found her output from the mid-1980’s onwards subject to the law of diminishing returns.  If I look at the careers of artists whose work I have followed over a similarly extended period – Dylan, Steve Winwood, Brian Wilson, Van Morrison, David Crosby, Pat Metheny, John Surman , Richard Thompson, to name but a few –  none of them have maintained an unerring finger on the creative pulse without blips or fallow periods or downright screw-ups, so it’s probably unreasonable to expect Joni to reach the heights every time she sits down at the piano or sets foot in the studio.

I wouldn’t claim to be as conversant with Joni’s post-1983 output as I am with the stuff she did beforehand, but my impression  of post ‘Mingus’ Joni was of a performer who was at times trying to re-invent herself as a rock & roller and at other times taking on major issues of the day like  Native American rights, Third World poverty and tele-evangelism.  Not that these chameleonesque changes  were anything new; Joni had previously gone through a serious ‘jazz’ phase between 1973 and 1980 – from the urban funk of the L.A. Express recordings to the full-on bebop of ‘Mingus‘.   Then, just as she threw herself from the introspective singer-songwriter of ‘Blue‘ into the hip jazz queen of the mid-70’s, she re-invented herself after ‘Mingus’ with a new band, a new husband and a rockier approach. 

Problem was that whilst Joni might have wanted to re-invent herself as a rock singer, her audience never manifested much enthusiasm for  the idea.  As she retreated from live performance, painting more and playing less, so we retreated in turn, replacing our battered vinyl copies of ‘Hejira’ and ‘Song for a seagull’ with new CD copies that only re-emphasised how far she had travelled and how we had travelled our own roads in parallel.  Albums like ‘Chalk mark in a rainstorm‘ (1988) and ‘Turbulent Indigo’ (1994) drew reasonable sales and some critical acclaim, but there was a sense that Joni Mitchell was embarked on a ‘Sunset Boulevard’ type retreat from the public eye and might never engage as fully with her career as a singer again, especially when she seemed preoccupied with her painting and – in the late 90’s – with reuniting with her long-lost daughter Kilauren Gibb.  Having always had a fraught relationship with the media, Joni’s occasional disdainful pronouncements and public appearances took on an increasingly diva-esque quality.  She collaborated with a wide range of performers – Brian Blade, Willie Nelson and Peter Gabriel to name but three – but then announced after 1998’s ‘Taming the Tiger’ that she would not be producing any more original songs and that her next two albums would feature ‘cover versions’ and would be recorded purely to see out her contract with Warners. 

Which brings me -finally – to ‘Both sides, now’ from 2000 and ‘Travelogue’ from 2002.  Both are distinguished by orchestral arrangements by the highly-talented Vince Mendoza and also feature some top-of-the-heap jazz players – Herbie Hancock, Kenny Wheeler, Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade, Stan Sulzmann, Peter Erskine and Chris Laurence to name but a few.

‘Both sides, now’ is an interlinked series of jazz standards with a couple of Mitchell’s old chestnuts thrown in.  The songs  chart the course of a love affair from initial passion to terminal disillusionment.  ‘Travelogue‘, meanwhile, is drawn entirely from the breadth of  Joni’s back catalogue.  Neither album featured her on anything other than vocals; to my knowledge, there is no guitar on either album and Herbie Hancock plays such piano as there is.  Mendoza’s arrangements are both lush and dramatic, whilst Mitchell’s voice has a husky alto quality (particularly on ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’ on ‘Travelogue‘) that differs appreciably from the pure soprano of her 1970’s albums.  Too many packs of ‘American Spirit’ maybe, though Joni spikily denied this, citing nodules on her vocal cords and the ongoing after-effects of the polio that afflicted her as a child.

Joni the Jazz Diva – she’s been here before, of course, with parts of  ‘Court and Spark’ and the ‘Mingus‘ project, but somehow Mendoza’s romantic flourishes suit her better than the bebop stylings of songs like ‘The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines‘ or the earlier, irritating sub-Annie Ross clever-cleverness of ‘Twisted’.

These arrangements differ, inasmuch as they are actually shaped to Mitchell’s voice and lyrics rather than her having to fight with the band and/or the lyric to gain a foothold – and it generally suits her far better.  The mood is elegaic for the most part, the ‘standards’ are OK-ish and of her own songs, few suffer any profound damage.  In fact, some songs – notably ‘For the roses’ and ‘Refuge of the roads’ actually profit from their re-imagining compared to the originals.

The fact that Joni made a public pronouncement to the effect that these would be her final albums adds a further layer of nostalgia to proceedings.  Ten years down the line, we know that she re-emerged 5 years after ‘Travelogue‘ with a new album of new Mitchell compositions (‘Shine‘ 2007), but one has to assume that at the time these recordings were made, she was sincere in her assertion that this was ‘it’ for her and that there would be no more.  That being the case, these albums can be seen, variously,  as an empty exercise to fulfil a contract, a coda to gloriously encapsulate a glittering 35-year career or a well-dressed vanity project; my vote would be largely for the lattermost of these with perhaps just a tinge of the foremost.

Re-recording of landmark ‘hits’ is usually frowned upon by the Woodstock Generation unless this is done in the context of a concert performance, but in the jazz era, it used to happen on a regular basis.  Whenever Duke Ellington signed up to a new record label, it was almost axiomatic that he would go into the studio and record a new version of ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ or ‘Mood Indigo’ or ‘Solitude’.  People will inevitably compare the re-recorded Mitchell compositions on these two albums with the originals and are likely to conclude that the latter-day recordings are generally more sombre than their forbears.  The child of God she came across on the road to Woodstock some 40 years ago probably now has fallen arches, liver-spotted hands and high blood pressure, so perhaps sombre is an appropriate mood for her to aim for here.

They say that you should never go back, but Joni is only one of a number of artists who have done just that in recent years.  Brian Wilson (with ‘Pet Sounds’) and Arthur Lee (with ‘Forever Changes’) actually did so to great effect – only Van Morrison’s abysmal retread of ‘Astral Weeks’ comes to mind as a real catastrophe.  ‘Both sides, now’ and ‘Travelogue’  probably fall somewhere in the middle – not really a triumphant culmination of a great career, but sufficiently well-recorded and produced that they cannot be dismissed entirely.

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