Groundbreaking genius. Bitter crackpot. Scene-maker. Recluse. Fifty years into her career, Joni Mitchell remains an enigma.
Between 1968 and 2007 Joni Mitchell produced, arranged and performed a body of work that is, in many ways, without peer in popular music. She was still a very young woman when she joined Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and many other Canadian artists who were compelled to migrate south across the border in search of audiences and careers. In the early years, her rise was legendary. With songs like “Woodstock,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “The Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now,” her music perfectly encapsulated the aesthetics and concerns of a generation in search of meaning and redefinition. She was tough, uncompromising and didn’t let anything stand in the way of her music—least of all gender expectations. She continually pushed her own creative envelope, writing non-linear narratives, experimenting with key and chord signatures, and reaching far into the language and compositional landscape of jazz decades before it was fashionable. Although the pace of her releases slowed over the years, it is staggering to consider that the same woman who wrote “Urge For Going” as a post-adolescent in the early ‘60s continued to write songs such as “Come in From The Cold” and “Crazy Cries of Love” far into her maturity. Only Bob Dylan has contributed a musical lexicon that has remained as rich, diverse and compelling over as long a period of time as Mitchell has.
But, if her recent forays into publicity and engaging the press are any indication, Joni Mitchell isn’t very happy with the way things have turned out for her. The media has been complicit in portraying her as rock music’s Greta Garbo, holed up in her studio a slow ferry ride’s distance away from Vancouver, capturing a misty sunrise in oil paints at dawn. It’s tempting to think that Mitchell simply wants to be left alone, and that she has turned inward and doesn’t give a shit what we all think about her and the beautiful music she’s created. That’s the romantic view. But, when cornered, Mitchell has never resisted invitations to explain herself, her muse and what’s important about her music. Through her outbursts, it has become abundantly clear that she cares deeply about what the public thinks of her creative output. Almost everything she has said and written recently indicates an artist who is convinced that her work hasn’t been considered in the correct light, and whose innovations haven’t been appreciated while those of her peers have been continually honored and feted.
It could be argued that Joni Mitchell doesn’t do herself any favors. When interviewed, she never fails to offer incendiary points of view, and she hasn’t developed a sense of caution, even though she must be aware that her comments are often taken out of the context of the larger points she’s making. She is often portrayed as bitter, imbalanced and full of ingratitude for the amazing experiences and accomplishments that have been part of her life’s journey. You don’t have to look very far to read the scandalous things she’s recently offered about Dylan and Taylor Swift amongst others. She’s become adept at cutting people down at the knees and saying all manner of mean things. The public could be forgiven for being taken aback by Mitchell’s myopia, wondering where she gets off being so bitter when she’s had it “easier” than 99 percent of the people currently living on the planet. It can be difficult to reconcile the fact that when she’s sold so many records and had so many hits, she still considers herself underappreciated. How many of us write and play songs that no one outside of our families and friends will hear? How many of us would be happy achieving just one tenth of what she’s accomplished?
For these reasons amongst others, there’s been a huge backlash from many younger Canadian musicians who have posted essays online that all offer variations on “She’s been washed up for years and should shut up and go away.” In many ways, it’s an understandable reaction from these up-and-coming musicians as they struggle to get their careers off the ground. Still, after thinking about it for a long time, I’ve come to around to thinking that Joni’s got a point. She has done well. That’s undeniable, but the fact that she hasn’t received the ongoing late-career attention that peers such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen have enjoyed is also undeniable.
Sexism in the music industry has often been held up as the main culprit. Along with Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Janis Joplin, Mitchell was instrumental in breaking down barriers at a time when it was very difficult for women to be taken seriously as artists of any kind. She refused to compromise; she sang about sex when it was considered unbecoming for a woman to do so, stood her ground with aggressive peers, and played guitar as well as any man at a time when most women musicians dared do little more than strum. All of her challenges to the existing hierarchy made it much easier for the next generation of women singers—Tori Amos, Tracy Chapman and Sinead O’Connor amongst others—to pursue high profile careers in music.
Love Has Many Faces, a new 4-CD career retrospective, is Joni Mitchell’s most recent attempt at presenting an overview of her music in a sympathetic light. This has obviously been something of an obsession for her, as Love Has Many Faces is the third retrospective that she has taken an active role in compiling. Only her old friend and fellow Canadian Neil Young has taken a more obsessively curatorial role in presenting his work, and Mitchell’s decisions as to which of her music is worthy are just as quirky and revealing as those reflected in Young’s archival releases. Mitchell’s first attempts at compilation, Hits and Misses, came out in 1996 and were presented as a pair of single-CD overviews that featured—as the titles suggest—her radio-friendly singles compiled on one disc and “should-have-been hits” on a second disc. A few years later, she followed this rather brief overview with three separate compilations of her music that was recorded for the Geffen label. Divided into three distinct packages, The Beginning of Survival, Dreamland and Songs of a Prairie Girl, these retrospectives grouped Mitchell’s songs thematically rather than chronologically. It was a risky, but intuitively shrewd choice that encouraged listeners to dig deeper into her work and listen beyond the obvious hits from albums like Blue and Ladies Of The Canyon. Still, as impressive as the content of these sets was, the flow from track to track was often tentative, and the overall listening experience could be jarring.
Love Has Many Faces follows the precedent set by the Geffen compilations and offers a similarly thematic grouping of Mitchell’s music, but this time the songs are centered around the vagaries of love and desire rather than biography and geography. It’s an approach that works. Relationship, disappointment and renewal have always been recurring themes in Mitchell’s work, and by grouping songs around the romantic arcs that correspond with the various phases of life, Love Has Many Faces succeeds in illuminating what her previous compilations have only suggested. It’s a tough thing to put together an overview of the work of an artist who has had a career as long as Joni Mitchell has had and whose earlier creative output is as diverse and challenging as hers has been. By running songs chronologically, there’s always a risk that more recent, experimental and obscure music will be ignored and passed on in favor of listening to comforting old hits from yesteryear. People need to be intrigued and seduced to take risks, and in the past, both Mitchell and her critics made the mistake of presenting her new work as “sophisticated,” “challenging” and “good for a person” in the same way that flax and wheat germ might be.
Certainly, none of this has been lost on Joni Mitchell. A quick read through bios and articles on the Internet confirmed what I suspected—that most of what’s written about her draws a line under her career after Mingus, her first truly experimental jazz record, came out in 1979. A further check through my musically literate friends’ record collections yielded similar results, with only a few copies of Wild Things Run Fast from 1983 indicating forays into her work that go beyond the obvious and tried and true. It’s sad really. People who stopped listening with Mingus not only haven’t got the full story, but I would go further to argue that they’ve missed the best parts of it. Off the top of my head, songs like “Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody,” “Love Puts On A New Face” and “Borderline”—all of which are featured on Love Has Many Faces—are at least as lyrically and musically interesting as anything she recorded during the first decade of her career. This is obviously an idea that Mitchell wanted to push a little further as the four CDs that make up the compilation each feature a generous selection of cuts from later albums like Night Ride Home, Turbulent Indigo, Travelogue and Taming The Tiger. What makes the presentation of these songs work so well is that when selecting a running order, Mitchell approached all of her music as an organic whole rather than representations of distinct time periods. Songs are woven together in such a way that they show consistencies in theme, if not in approach. Newer songs like “The Windfall (Everything from Nothing)” intersect with old classics like “River” to remind us that way we understand our experiences changes and progresses as our lives unfold.
Each of the four discs on Love Has Many Faces revolves around an aspect of the human journey through relationships. The first disc, “Birth Of Rock ‘N’ Roll Days” offers the most overtly nostalgic look at love with romance being inextricably linked to rebellion and coming of age. Songs as diverse as “In France They Kiss On Main Street,” “Come In From The Cold” and “Car On A Hill” remind of us a time when love was forbidden, bristling and exciting, full of shallow breaths and big dreams. By the second disc, “The Light Is Hard To Find,” the singer has been around the block a few times, the poignancy of looking back at scores of failed relationships has settled in, and the way out is uncertain. Spread over decades, ruminations such as “Trouble Child,” “Not To Blame” and “Stay In Touch” confirm the cost of living with an open heart. The third disc, “Love Has Many Faces,” which offers a variety of sketches that express mid-life and its acceptance of frailty, is my favorite of all. “Be Cool,” “Dream Flat Tires” and “The Crazy Cries Of Love” are as good as any songs written anywhere in the last hundred years and should be heard by everyone. The last disc, “If You Want Me I’ll Be in the Bar,” offers the loosest aggregation of tracks in the compilation. Songs like “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and “Two Grey Rooms” and “Down To You” careen between desperation and abandonment with life’s absurdity hanging always like a low ceiling overhead. Listening through it, I imagine all of the shrill and desperate characters Mitchell describes, gathered in a room together, beautiful losers jiving to her “Sweet Sucker Dance.” Lifetimes away from the young girl who sang “Both Sides Now,” the Joni Mitchell we hear on “If You Want Me I’ll Be In The Bar” is like Judy Garland on hallucinogenics. Charles Bukowski and Tom Waits’ saddest hangovers have nothing on the darkness many of these songs evoke.
Will we ever get to hear any new music from Joni Mitchell? She insists that she is “finished,” but it’s important to remember that she had also declared herself “retired” when she put out Shine in 2007 with almost no fanfare or publicity. As if in explanation for her absences and strange behavior, she recently revealed that she’s been suffering from Morgellons disease, a bizarre phenomenon in which patients insist that they have small fibers growing under the skin that cause constant discomfort. Like almost everything else in Mitchell’s life, the disease is controversial, with some doctors calling it delusional while others confirm its existence. It offers a justification for why she hasn’t been more prolific and hasn’t toured since 1999 when she went out on the road with Bob Dylan.
In the absence of new work, the most recent media portrayals of Mitchell have all focused on her difficult personality, with her often being represented as a snippy, bitter and delusional woman who once created great art, but who has regrettably stooped to muck-raking in the press instead of maintaining dignified silence. It’s too bad because these stories and incomplete portraits denigrate a body of work that is singularly wonderful, expressive, challenging, brave and erotic. It’s a body of work that deserves to last and gain in reputation.
I have never met Joni Mitchell, but if I had the chance, I would tell her that after the very full life she’s led that she deserves to relax and enjoy her accomplishments. What other people think is out of all of our hands. But if there is any justice, in the end it won’t matter how sweet or cantankerous anybody thought she was. I mean, Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis apparently weren’t very nice guys, but does anyone really give a shit about that when they look at “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” or play Bitches Brew? Those are things for friends and family to sort out. Time fixes most things, and we should all have confidence that on merit alone, people will still be listening to “Woodstock” and “Song For Sharon” long after we’ve all become stardust and billion-year-old carbon.