Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Joni Mitchell.
Joni Mitchell 101
In 1964, a young painter named Roberta Joan Anderson left her home and college in Western Canada and moved to Toronto, to be a part of the burgeoning folk-music scene there. “Joni” struggled to be taken seriously at first, but her striking looks and strong voice made her difficult to ignore; plus, she worked tirelessly, playing anywhere that would have her, and evolving quickly from performing folk standards to penning her own heartbreakingly beautiful ballads. The big break finally came when she married American folksinger Chuck Mitchell, who brought her to the U.S., where they performed as a duo. The marriage didn’t last long, but Joni Mitchell kept her name as she toured up and down the east and west coasts of America, before eventually settling in Los Angeles, where she became part of a thriving community of musicians and artists. Mitchell soon outpaced her new neighbors, writing stunning original songs while tinkering with how folk music could sound. While others fused folk and rock, Mitchell tried blending in jazz and soul, and she started ditching the guitar to sit at a piano, which gave her a wider range of tones to explore. She became one of the most popular and influential musicians of the ’70s, even as her stubborn streak led her to defy what even her legions of devoted fans expected.
After two impressive albums of airy, arty acoustic folk, Joni Mitchell began her rise to stardom in earnest with 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon, a more eclectic record in sound, instrumentation, and subject matter. Inspired by the culture and concerns of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon scene, Ladies Of The Canyon ranges from light vignettes (like the chiming title track) to darker character sketches (like “The Arrangement” and “The Priest”). Mitchell shifts between guitar and piano, depending on the tone of the song—favoring keyboards for the heavier material—and that conscious reach for more variety is reflected in the album’s two most famous songs. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a peppy take on imminent ecological disaster, with Mitchell’s easygoing strumming and Milt Holland’s boppy percussion lending a brightness even to Mitchell’s oft-quoted laments, “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot,” and “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” Then the song that follows, “Woodstock,” takes a slow, sorrowful approach to a seemingly happier topic: the promise of a generation, gathering to “get ourselves back to the garden.”
Musically, “Woodstock” set the tone for what became Mitchell’s real breakthrough album: 1971’s Blue. Playing the piano seemed to put Mitchell in a funk, pushing her toward achingly beautiful, deeply sad songs. But where Ladies Of The Canyon alternated big-picture lyrics with third-person storytelling, Blue was personal in a way few singer-songwriter albums had been up to that point. Mitchell barely pretended that she was singing about anybody other than herself, as she sang about California as a respite from the misery of the world, and conveyed romantic yearning with an emphasis on the word “I.” Yet what made Blue such a favorite among music fans and musicians alike is the quality of the writing. Songs like “River” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” have their own distinctive literary voice, fitting a short story’s worth of narrative details into a few well-chosen descriptive lines. Between its images of Christmas cheer and passing mentions of a failed love affair, “River” paints such a vivid picture of loss that listeners can practically conjure it in their own heads, while “The Last Time I Saw Richard” starts as a debate between a cynic and a romantic, then jumps ahead to show how the former has permanently stained the latter.
While movies, television, and popular fiction were scrambling to catch up with what was going on with “the liberated woman” of the ’70s, Mitchell was singing it straight, expressing lust and regret, and an understanding that few writers of her generation—male or female, songwriter or otherwise—could match. And personalizing the material made a difference, since it allowed Mitchell to report on her world as she saw it, while admitting her own fears and desires. Anyone looking for a thesis statement from Mitchell couldn’t do much better than the opening line of Blue’s opening song “All I Want,” in which she sings, “I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling,” as though that’s both the most amazing and most terrifying prospect she could imagine.
Mitchell expounded on that theme most powerfully on two of her most popular albums. The first is 1974’s Court And Spark, a record that both embraces the polished West Coast studio craft of its era and drives it in new directions, toward the more experimental realm of jazz fusion. The album produced Mitchell’s only Top 10 hit, “Help Me,” a sinewy little miracle of a song, which stimulates the senses with its shimmery guitar and woodwinds—all while Mitchell sings about how she likes having sex with this one guy so much that she almost wants to settle down, even though she knows that’d be terrible for them. The record continues in this vein, whether Mitchell’s anxiously (and possibly fruitlessly) waiting for her lover to pull up in “Car On A Hill,” or struggling with forgiving a louse in “Just Like This Train,” or adopting the voice of her record-executive pal David Geffen as he enjoys a worry-free (and gay-friendly) life for a few days in “Free Man In Paris.” Unlike the intense Blue, Court And Spark is exuberant and frequently funny—right down to the Cheech & Chong cameo on Mitchell’s cover of the Annie Ross psychobabble novelty song “Twisted”—but the emotions it expresses are complex, explaining how people can desperately want what they know is bad for them, because it just feels so damn good.
Mitchell continued to explore the pros and cons of rootlessness in 1976’s Hejira, and found the perfect musician for her preoccupations in jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius, whose fretless sound fits stories of a woman roaming freely. While Mitchell began venturing more into abstraction with her lyrics in the previous year’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira partly returns to the conversational approach of Blue and Court And Spark. Inspired by a cross-country road trip, Hejira’s songs spread out, with Mitchell’s thoughts wandering to the people she misses, the unusual characters she’s met, and how it feels to roll anonymously from town to town. It’s one of the all-time great “road” albums, highlighted by songs like “Coyote” (another song about how the kind of man who would understand her is the kind of man who can’t be tied down), and “Song For Sharon” (a sort of distaff sequel to “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” in which Mitchell reminisces with an old friend about how their dreams have changed since their youth).
In 1980, Mitchell’s chum David Geffen started his own record label, and brought Mitchell on board right around the time her career hit a commercial lull. Like a lot of musicians of her generation, Mitchell was becoming interested in pop music again, thanks to the quirky-but-catchy advances into the charts made by New Wave artists. She was also pushed some by the competition from singer-songwriters like Rickie Lee Jones and Joan Armitrading, who built on Mitchell’s sound, but in more accessible areas. Mitchell’s Geffen Records debut was 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, her snappiest set of songs since Court And Spark. Mitchell’s lyrics continued to be more allusive and sometimes hard to penetrate—full of evocative phrases like “You Dream Flat Tires” and “Moon At The Window”—she also kept focusing on how men both satisfy and disappoint her, and she dropped a big hint about a secret from her past in the album-opening “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody,” which refers to the child she gave up for adoption in the early ’60s. What remains most striking about Wild Things Run Fast is how short and punchy the songs are. Mitchell didn’t just rent a synth-player like some older rockers did in the ’80s (at least not yet); she tried to think young, coming up with songs like the title track and “Underneath The Streetlight” that are bustling and modern, yet no less Joni-esque.
Mitchell more or less quit the music business at the end of the ’90s, and spent the subsequent years either painting, supervising themed anthologies of her work, or re-recording some older songs with full orchestral backing. Then out of the blue, in 2007, she released Shine, her first album of new songs in a decade, and her best in 25 years. Drawing from across her different eras—jazzy and balladic, experimental and poppy, personal and political—Shine is, first and foremost, a highly alluring record, with a sound that almost seems distilled from everything Mitchell’s fans have ever liked about her. But aside from a corny re-do of “Big Yellow Taxi”—which feels like a sop to Mitchell’s label, the Starbucks imprint Hear Music—Shine is remarkable for how engaged it is with modern life, from the environmental crisis to the war on terror. Far from despairing, Shine approaches these subjects with a fair amount of optimism, brought by a woman who’s seen a lot go down in her 60-plus years on Earth.
Mitchell’s second album, 1969’s Clouds, began her transition from ethereal artiste to writer of timeless folksongs. The album is anchored by two songs that were already hits in other artists’ hands: “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides, Now.” Mitchell’s melodies are complex and winding on Clouds, but performed simply, mostly with just resonant acoustic guitar—mic’d so every strum pops, as though being played just a few feet away from the listener—and Mitchell’s astonishingly expressive voice, which can be deep and thick one moment and high and lilting the next. Mitchell painted the self-portrait on Clouds’ cover, with a realistic, representational approach that befits the music inside. Also appropriate: the sun setting behind Mitchell on the cover. There’s a melancholic, elegiac mood to Clouds, which suits an era when the hippie dream was starting to fade. No wonder that one of the best songs on Clouds—the forlorn “Songs To Aging Children Come”—appeared in Arthur Penn’s moody movie adaptation of Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant.” Tigger Outlaw sings “Songs” in Alice’s Restaurant, scoring a funeral.
Equal parts sequel to Blue and prequel to Court And Spark, 1972’s For The Roses isn’t as daringly exposed as the former or as sonically inviting as the latter, though it contains some of Mitchell’s best songs (plus her first legitimate chart hit in the puckish, country-tinged “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”). Mitchell continued the direct confessionals of Blue on songs like the brutally honest “See You Sometime,” where she berates an ex-lover while admitting she’s still up for getting together. She also filled in some of her own backstory on “Let The Wind Carry Me,” a song about growing up and leaving home, and she returned to the fuller portraiture of her early albums on “Blonde In The Bleachers” and “Barangrill,” which gives some other characters a voice in her songs again. And Mitchell gets ahead of herself musically on the ambitious heroin saga “Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire,” which has some of the jazzy touches she was about to explore further on Court And Spark, but with intimations of funk that she didn’t really come back to until after she’d had her platinum moment.
On 1975’s The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Mitchell really went deeper into R&B (and African music, via the distorted, pounding “The Jungle Line”). Where before, Mitchell sang about welcoming, artsy enclaves in foreign countries and in California, in The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, she ventures into the city—with a detour through the suburbs—bringing a more cinematic sound, with impressions of film noir and blaxploitation. Mitchell’s lyrics became less direct as well, though in the album-opener, “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” and the side-two highlight “The Boho Dance,” she did continue to flesh out her origin story, first describing the appeal of the high life to a country girl, then taking a second look from a more mature perspective. After a run of acclaimed albums, some critics balked at Summer Lawns, calling it unnecessarily aloof and pretentious. Time has been a lot kinder to the album, which now seems more of a piece with Mitchell’s post-Blue attempts to create full, rich playlets in four minutes or less. It’s hard to deny the depth—sonically and lyrically—of songs like the title track and “Edith And The Kingpin,” which tell stories in short bursts of dreamy imagery, fleshed out by burbling bass, watery electric piano, and soft, jazzy orchestrations.
Following the fresh-sounding Wild Things Run Fast, Mitchell disappeared down the same ’80s hole that snared many of her generation, recording bloated albums with an inflated sense of their own importance, and losing the inspired playfulness that dotted Mitchell’s work in her early years. Then came 1991’s Night Ride Home, a much more open record, leaning heavily on guitar, piano, and jazzy accents, just like Mitchell’s most popular era. Intentionally commercial move or not, Night Ride Home is a highly engaging album, in large part because Mitchell matches the warmer sound to some of her most inward-looking lyrics in years, with songs like “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” and “Two Grey Rooms” expressing longing from the perspective of a teenager and a middle-aged woman, respectively. It’s instructive to compare the many songs Mitchell has written about Native American struggles over the years with the more personal “Cherokee Louise,” about a girlhood friend who dealt with poverty, racism, and sexual abuse. That’s a sad subject, but “Cherokee Louise” isn’t a sad song, because Mitchell lightens it up with happier memories, revealing life in all its joy and pain, just as she’s always done when she’s fully engaged.
Night Ride Home became the model for Mitchell’s remaining ’90s albums, 1994’s Turbulent Indigo and 1998’s Taming The Tiger, both of which rely on simple arrangements with a lot of echo, and Mitchell singing songs drawn from today’s headlines (“Sex Kills”), past injustices (“The Magdalene Laundries”), and personal need (“Love Puts On A New Face,” “The Crazy Cries Of Love,” and many more). The biggest change on these albums is Mitchell’s voice, which was narrowing into one mode: low and smoky. But even at a reduced range, Mitchell’s vocals are expressive, especially when set against a style that accentuates the way she caresses and conveys every word.
Mitchell’s 1968 debut album, Song To A Seagull—sometimes listed as just Joni Mitchell—is her most austere and folky, at least in terms of the direction the folk movement was headed in the late ’60s. These songs aren’t the sociopolitical sing-alongs of Pete Seeger; they’re free-floating and poetic, with Mitchell trilling over classically influenced acoustic guitar, like a medieval balladeer. Fans of Mitchell’s pop and jazz sides might have difficulty with Song To A Seagull, which is less immediately accessible and more genre-coded than her big-hit albums. But it’s an undeniably beautiful record, with a cool-breeze-rustling-the-trees-on-a-sun-dappled-autumn-day kind of feel. And beneath the heavier conceptual trappings, Mitchell is already revealing a lot of herself, turning the story of her journey thus far—career successes and romantic failures inclusive—into epic balladry.
A decade later, Mitchell was coming out of a period in which she had been one of the bestselling, best-loved female artists of her generation, dealt with unwanted scrutiny about her sex life, and faced criticism for her interest in musical forms other than the ones a person could play with just an acoustic guitar. Unwilling to continue chasing commercial success for its own sake, Mitchell plunged further into jazz and stream-of-consciousness, letting songs roam until they found whatever form made the most sense. On 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, that meant relatively poppy numbers like “Talk To Me,” “Otis And Marlena,” and “Jericho” shared space with the 16-minute “Paprika Plains,” a freeform ramble about alcoholism and the struggles of Native Americans, accentuated by occasional stretches of full orchestration.
“Paprika Plains” reportedly got the attention of ailing jazz legend Charles Mingus, who called her up and asked her to collaborate on what became his last project. The result was the 1979 album Mingus, written and recorded a few months before Mingus died, and released a few months afterward. A mix of Mingus-inspired originals, Mingus melodies with Mitchell lyrics, and audio vérité “raps” by the man himself, Mingus is more of a traditional vocal-jazz album than Mitchell might’ve made on her own, and coming as it did after the difficult Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, the record effectively killed any momentum Mitchell’s career built up in the early- to mid-’70s. But it’s still a moving tribute to one of the greats, and in some ways an easier album to get into than Don Juan, thanks to giddy bop exercises like “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines.”
Mitchell steered sharply back to the mainstream with Wild Things Run Fast, but when that album failed to become a smash, Geffen encouraged Mitchell to contemporize even more, suggesting she work with Thomas Dolby, who had a reputation for making synthesizers safe for the electronics-averse. There were pros and cons to the collaboration. Dolby does enliven 1985’s Dog Eat Dog, adding colors and rhythms that fit Mitchell’s overall sophisticated folk-pop style. But the sound of the album is dated now in a way Mitchell’s classic albums aren’t. On the other hand, without Dolby’s contributions, Dog Eat Dog might’ve been a lot drearier, since it marks another change in Mitchell’s lyrical style, toward more overt social commentary. There are some fine songs here—most notably “Fiction,” “Lucky Girl,” and “Good Friends,” which all fuse Dolby and Mitchell’s strengths well, but on the whole, the material is more removed and less personal than Mitchell’s best.
Three years passed between Wild Things and Dog Eat Dog, and then three more passed before 1988’s even more modern-sounding (and even more distant) Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm. Late-’80s recording studios tended to swallow up even the most accomplished singer-songwriters, but Mitchell didn’t do herself any favors by loading Chalk Mark with guest stars (including Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Billy Idol, and Wendy And Lisa) and by once again writing songs that are dreadfully serious without ever seeming deeply felt. The album is at its best when it’s at its least fussy, as on the sweet “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms),” a dignified explication of aging and pacifism, and the gentle “A Bird That Whistles,” which is so light and supple that it almost sounds like a long-lost outtake from For The Roses.
Perhaps someday the wealth of Mitchell live recordings out there will start getting released, but for now, fans will have to content themselves with the few official Mitchell live albums. The best-known are 1974’s Miles Of Aisles and 1980’s Shadows And Light, both of which catch Mitchell singing her most beloved songs with a band of skilled session men and jazz masters. But also worth seeking out is 2009’s Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace, which, as the title implies, is a recording of a benefit concert Mitchell performed with James Taylor and Phil Ochs in 1970. Mitchell and Taylor—who were dating at the time—team up some for their respective sets, which is great for those who’ve always wanted to hear Mitchell sing along with Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes.”
Never one to do anything the ordinary way, Mitchell has eschewed conventional greatest-hits collections, outside of 1996’s single-disc Hits (which was accompanied by some of her more adventurous songs on Misses). In 2004 and ’05, though, Mitchell released three themed anthologies: The Beginning Of Survival, a set of her lesser-known late-period songs; Songs Of A Prairie Girl, a collection of some of her more biographical songs; and Dreamland, which comes closest to being the “best of” newcomers might want.
Mitchell also re-recorded more than two hours’ worth of her songs for 2002’s Travelogue, a companion piece to 2000’s Both Sides Now, which saw her recording jazz standards and a couple of her own tunes with a full orchestra. The thick, dreamy sound of these records suits the lower register Mitchell has sung in since the mid-’90s, and it’s also useful on Travelogue to hear songs like “Otis And Marlena,” “You Dream Flat Tires,” and “Cherokee Louise” alongside the likes of “Trouble Child” and “The Circle Game,” played in the same style. It serves to flatten out the era-specific distinctions of the originals and highlight the songs themselves, which are consistently excellent.
Preferring the way of the solo artist, Mitchell hasn’t participated in many true collaborations, but she did allow Herbie Hancock to record an album of her songs called River: The Joni Letters, which shocked people in 2008 when it won the Grammy for Album Of The Year. She also worked with the Alberta Ballet Company’s Jean Grand-Maître on The Fiddle And The Drum, a dance performance set to some of Mitchell’s most politically engaged songs.
The Fiddle And The Drum is available on DVD, as are a trio of concert films—Shadows And Light, Refuge Of The Roads, and Painting With Words And Music—which capture Mitchell’s uncanny ability to live inside her songs onstage, performance after performance.
1. Court And Spark
Nothing about Mitchell’s best album sounds contrived or tentative; Court And Spark finds her at the height of her powers as a pop songsmith, and at her peak as Everyone’s Most Interesting Best Friend, dropping by to commiserate about romantic woe and tell some amazing stories about what she’s been up to.
The album that set the bar for confessional singer-songwriters, showing that raw honesty won’t scare off an audience, provided that it’s couched in words both poetic and plain.
“I’m traveling in some vehicle / Sitting in some café,” Mitchell sings on the title track to her most restless record, a collection of songs about getting lost in a blur of movement, pausing only occasionally to reflect.
4. The Hissing Of Summer Lawns
Dismissed as an impenetrable art-record by some on its initial release, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns now sounds like a misunderstood masterpiece: plenty catchy, lush as the green grass of its title, and brave in the way it expands Mitchell’s self-analysis outward.
5. Wild Things Run Fast
After audience- and label-confounding forays into more straight-up jazz, Mitchell returned to pop with this album, but on her own terms, preferring “pop” as it was being redefined by the edgier young acts emerging on the scene in the early ’80s.