Music journalists often discuss which artists have shown the most consistently high standards throughout their careers. For example, I once heard Stuart Maconie on 6 Music exalt Stevie Wonder’s sequence of albums from Music of my Mind to Songs in the Key of Life. I remember too a Rolling Stone review at the time of the release of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads in which the journalist ended his piece with something like, “That’s five outstanding albums without a slip-up… do you think they’re aiming for the Greatest Band Ever title?”
My nominee for this category would be Joni Mitchell. I first heard her music on For the Roses, and continued my acquaintance through the next three albums : Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. During the 1970s, when I was listening to these albums regularly, I would have argued that each record was a fairly flawless example of pop/rock songwriting and performing. Thirty years later, unless given convincing evidence to the contrary, I would still regard Mitchell’s overall achievement as hugely impressive.
The album which Mitchell made before For the Roses – Blue – is the one which tends now to be identified as the signal representative of her particular skills and qualities as a musician and the most apparent influence on younger female musicians like Laura Marling. I didn’t hear Blue in full until years after the others aforementioned, but, doing so, I quickly shared others’ high opinion. So perhaps, with Blue added to the list, I might count that Joni Mitchell sequence as five consecutive albums.
The reason why modern journalists have noticed the Blue-era Mitchell more than the later work is probably because those others are harder to categorise and copy. Attempts by pop/rock musicians to move away from their areas of strength, to be a little too adventurous or experimental, have often been unsuccessful, but this certainly did not apply in Mitchell’s case. For me, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira are the highlights of the Mitchell sequence as her most skilful and subtle blends of melody, lyrics, singing and jazz-influenced musical arrangements. Yet, even as early as the 1980s and 1990s, these had become overlooked parts of her canon, when, for example, the more musically varied elements of Bob Dylan’s and Paul Simon’s careers were being given equal attention to their earlier, “purer” work.
It was great to able to re-read some of Mitchell’s lyrics on her official website but it did demonstrate how hard it is to convey her lyrical gifts by brief quotes. Even the most startling or vivid phrase is part of a longer reflection or argument, and is never used for superficial effect. Furthermore, a reading of any lyric sometimes overlooks the contribution made by the remarkable range of her singing voice.
It still seems reasonable, however, to pull out a few extracts from memory. For instance, both the great title of “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and its exquisite meterological image of “those two bald-headed days in November before the first snowflake sail”. The young girl’s reminiscence of sitting in the back seat of a car and “thrilling to the Brando-like things that he said” from “In France They Kiss on Main Street”. The description of Beethoven in “Judgement of the Moon and Stars” : “Condemned to wires and hammers, strike every chord that you feel, that broken trees and elephant ivories conceal” . The Renaissance painting image of “the clouds of Michelangelo muscular with gods and sungold” in “Refuge of the Roads”. The mix of physical record and metaphor in “I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel to shower off the dust, and I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust” from “Amelia”. The list of references employed in the metaphorical “Electricity” – plus and minus, input and output, fuses, technical manual, charges, floodlit, overloaded, sparks, loose wires, circuits…
After Hejira, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was a double album of longer, more rambling material where the jazz music style which had previously fitted so successfully now felt a bit wasted. It is not without its good moments but I knew that the winning streak had ended.
The only time I saw her perform live, in the AOR era of 1983, was a less than satisfying experience, and the last album I bought was Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm in 1988. For me, her reputation rests most firmly on those brilliant and unjustly forgotten 1970s albums. It was good to hear Nick Luscombe on Radio 3’s Late Junction play a couple of tracks recently.