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Joni Mitchell: Travelogue

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Travelogue / Joni Mitchell: Most reviews of this recording will emphasize that Ms. Mitchell has rearranged some of her most famous songs for string accompaniment. And most reviews will mention the quality of Ms. Mitchell’s voice, roughened by thirty years of cigarette smoking. The first thing to emphasize is that the arrangements are not for strings, but for a full orchestra. (And what’s wrong with strings? Charlie Parker at the height of his powers toured with a string section.) And the use of horns, along with Mitchell’s trademark use of woodwinds (which goes back as far as Ladies of the Canyon), is particularly suitable to the mood of this record. But it is the voice on Travelogue that staggers me: It’s true that the range is somewhat diminished, though her voice remains a fine instrument for carrying the burdens of her songs. Among the most remarkable things about this remarkable record is how Mitchell has slowed the tempo on almost every tune; combined with her deeper–& to my ear more expressive–voice, this presents the songs in a completely new way. Listen to “The Last Time I Saw Richard” & “Woodstock” with this in mind. The original version of “Richard” was a superior brush off of someone who had sold out; the new version understands that none of us escape Richard’s fate. There is a mournful, elegiac quality in Mitchell’s voice that I have never heard before–and I’ve been listening to her records for thirty years. Compare, too, the original version of “Cherokee Louise” with the one on Travelogue. The first emphasized childhood nostalgia & anger at injustice. (There is actually a lot of anger in Mitchell’s work.) The new version of “Cherokee Louise” is a dirge, a requiem, a profound & heartfelt eulogy for a lost soul. With the full knowledge that we are all lost souls.

Mitchell began as a hippie soprano with a sweet voice & transformed herself into a folk-rocker & poet of personal revelation. I’ve come to think that she managed the “confessional mode” of poetry better than Anne Sexton & Sylvia Plath, neither of whom cared so passionately about the art of self-revelation as does Mitchell. It’s not the revelation so much as it is the art that makes these songs powerful & true, that gives them a bid at becoming classics. After the folk apotheosis of Miles of Isles, Mitchell turned increasingly to jazz modes, working with Charles Mingus before his death. In an interview on CBC I saw a couple of years ago, she allowed herself the exaggeration, “I’ve always been a jazz singer.” Well, we–especially artists–revise ourselves to conform to our desires, so let it pass. Joni Mitchell, with this record, has become a jazz singer. Her voice is her soul. Case in point: “The Circle Game.” Mitchell’s biggest pop hit, you’ll still hear it in supermarkets softly wafting customers toward a happy nostalgia appropriate for the consumption of goods. Perhaps it’s appropriate–the song fits comfortably within the carpe diem tradition. Seize the day. “The Circle Game” is the last song on Travelogue & on my first listen I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to it. The song has become a pop cliche, after all. Mitchell the jazz singer, though, surprises the listener with a version of the song worthy of Dinah Washington, a new title for the American Songbook. In addition to the titles I’ve already mentioned, I’d point to “Amelia,” “For the Roses,” “Refuge of the Roads,” & “Hejira” as perfectly transformed. This slowed-down version of “Refuge” gives the listener a much longer perspective–the mature adult looking back on the youthful traveler. “Me here least of all,” yes, exactly.

A couple of quibbles: I’ve never liked Mitchell’s rewrite of Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming.” The orchestra doesn’t improve “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” The Yeats poem is simply too perfectly austere for song. It is a poem meant to be spoken. Mitchell’s adaptation of St. Paul & The Book of Job hold up pretty well, though I still prefer her own lyrics. The male voices on this track provide an ironic comment on Mitchell’s previous use of female backups. She doesn’t need to go outside her own imagination for material. And where is “Come in from the Cold,” surely one of Mitchell’s best lyrics? I’d love to have it here as a companion to “Refuge of the Roads.” Ah, well, I’m grateful for this artist who has refused to be pinned down. As I write this, I am listening to the recently released Bob Dylan Live 1975, a record of live performances by the Rolling Thunder Revue, which included in its later stages the young Joni Mitchell. Dylan is a shape-shifter & so is Mitchell–his only rival in the folk-confessional mode.

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  • I think what she meant by “I’ve always been a jazz singer” is that she was never for a moment a “folk singer,” as she was labeled for her first decade, when the label applied to similar art-jazz performers like Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, late Tim Hardin, or the Dylan of “Another Side.”

    I.e., she never played other people’s songs; she never sang from any folk tradition; and even her guitar instrumentation was compositionally at odds with folk because her polio-weakened hands required her to use open tunings.

    If you think of her as a poet, spinning improvisation out of an individual personality, the way Plath or Sexton do, ask if they wouldn’t be jazz singers if they had any music in them.

    I’m not saying this to be argumentative — it’s just what you got me to think about.

  • Joe

    Mike, I agree on both counts, though despite her open tunings & harmonic invention, she worked early on in a folk idiom. And my references to Plath & Sexton weren’t really meant to denigrate them–just to point out that Mitchell had done very interesting things with similar material.

  • We blog enthusiastically en masse here – there is a kind of Drakean common thread.

    But I have been doing more and more Travelogue in the last few entries. The expression “art-jazz” is exactly right for this album and for Nick’s. I have blogged at length on the algonet ND files eg on River Man and Poor Boy.

    There is a long piece to be written comparing the use of arrangement and improvisation on Travelogue and the first two ND albums. I am not sure I can manage that this very minute.

    Travelogue is massively rich and dense without being at all indigestible. You get the voice, the tune, the interpretation, the “other voice” – Wheeler Shorter Preston etc, and then framing it all these sensitive and compelling arrangements.

    The other clear reference for me is the work Joshua Rifkin did for Judy Collins in the mid 60s – and it was those albums that made me look for Song for a Seagull in the first place. Maybe also John Cameron’s work (no relation) with Donovan but its so long since I heard this stuff that I don’t know how it stands up today.

    I have to say I think the Travelogue arrangements probably have the edge on Robert Kirby’s with Nick – at least on 5 Leaves Left

  • Mike Steel

    Three of the loveliest and best vocals ever, in my opinion, from Joni are on this album: God Must Be A Boogie Man, The Dawntreader, and Otis And Marlena. Though I love this album, and consider her current voice richer and more expressive than her younger one, I am still confused/saddened that there is nothing from Summer Lawns here.