Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Perfect Song Kicks The Mediocre Turbulent Indigo Up A Notch!

The Good: "The Sire Of Sorrow," Lyrics, Moments of voice
The Bad: Generic overproduced quality to much of the album, Musically boring.
The Basics: Joni Mitchell creates a good, if not mind-blowing album with Turbulent Indigo, a slower, sadder album saved by one truly depressing song.

Poor Joni Mitchell. That's not entirely true, she's richer in many ways than me, but poor Joni Mitchell that as I've been listening to her works, I can't seem to find anything I'd really strongly recommend. She's a great songwriter, but her music on her early albums and her vocals are so limited that it makes it hard to recommend any of her albums I've thus heard. Then, I went to some of her later works, including Turbulent Indigo and whatever that newer one is that I have on in the car (yeah, review pending. :) ). Where Mitchell's early works are simple and unimaginative musically and vocally contrasting brilliant poetry, Mitchell's later works seem to be very much lyrically as powerful, but as vocally boring and overproduced in contrast to her prior stark sound.

So, after my third listen of Turbulent Indigo, I was prepared to write another review of a mediocre album and this time have the fortitude to actually not recommend it. Two listens later, I was distraught and driving (always a good combination!) and I actually heard the final track on the album. There are moments that a song can resonate so powerfully in one's life that it changes everything. And "The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" has become that for me. There are albums where they are average but the strength of one song can make it something better. In my pantheon and rating system, that is an extraordinarily rare thing, but Turbulent Indigo is one of them.

With ten tracks clocking in at a total of 43:02, Turbulent Indigo struck me immediately with its poetic title and the richness of sound compared to the earlier works of Joni Mitchell. To leap from the early works to this 1994 album, is quite something, but it's just how I received the albums. Written entirely by Joni Mitchell, she provides the primary vocals on all ten songs. As well, she plays guitar, piano and keyboards as well as percussion on some of the tracks. She takes a producing credit on the album and it won her a Grammy, so I think it's a fair assessment to say that this is very much the musical vision of Joni Mitchell.

And it is good.

But it's also not the album that is going to light the world on fire and I'm actually somewhat surprised it won the Pop album of the year for 1994.

Lyrically, Turbulent Indigo is an album that may be judged by its title. Isn't Turbulent Indigo a great, poetic title? Mitchell utilizes wonderful diction not only in the titles, but in the songs. With lines like, "You snipe so steady / You snub so snide / So ripe and ready / To diminish and deride! / You're so quick to condescend / My opinionated friend / All you deface, all you defend / Is just a borderline" ("Borderline") she illustrates an ability to articulate complex ideas using complex phrases not frequently found in pop-rock music. "Borderline," which is a very repetitive song is saved from the frequent mentions of its title by the incredible vocabulary and message between refrains.

Turbulent Indigo is an album that is a lot more philosophical than narrative; unlike many of Joni Mitchell's works that are musical stories with a protagonist and a plotline to follow, Turbulent Indigo is much more about the poetics. It is a collection of thoughts put to music. For sure, there are stories, in fact, most are presented with a microcosm for the point that she's trying to make - like "The Magdalene Laundries" and "Sex Kills" - but the stories are more a collection of references as opposed to straightforward linear narratives like her songs that were character names on her earlier albums.

She tackles environmental calamities and current events on songs like "Sex Kills," laments about the draconian conditions of homes for unwed mothers on "The Magdalene Laundries," and tackles spousal abuse with "Not To Blame." She has a captivating series of poems on Turbulent Indigo and the title of the album wonderfully prepares the listener for the experience. In fact, the only truly poetically lame aspect of Turbulent Indigo are the titles. I once wrote of Heather Nova's album Storm (reviewed here!) that the titles were obvious and basically come up in the songs as exactly what you would expect the title of the song to be. Poetically, it is disappointing. Mitchell does that with "Turbulent Indigo;" most of the songs have the obvious title.

And then there is "The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)." And damn. That's a song you don't want to hear on your worst day because it'll inform you that you're in exactly the place Man is meant to be. It is powerful, depressing, dark and sad and scary and wonderful. Seriously, I wish I could just post the lyrics here and everyone who read them would say "I need to hear that song" and either go out and buy the album or legally download the song. Mitchell deserves money for that song! I've chosen to illustrate how great the song is with this passage from it, though: "Once I was blessed; I was awaited like the rain / Like eyes for the blind, like feet for the lame / Kings heard my words, and they sought out my company / But now the janitors of shadowland flick their brooms at me / Oh you tireless watcher! what have I done to you? / That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true" ("The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)"). And no, Mitchell's brilliance extends to there being no catharsis from the sorrow. It is a truly wrenching song.

Unfortunately, it reveals some of the problems with Turbulent Indigo as an album ("The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" is a perfect song. Absolutely perfect.) and they are all musical. "The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)" sounds like "Borderline," and "How Do You Stop." Turbulent Indigo, the track, has a lot in common with the slower "Not To Blame" and the entire album has a richly produced, generic adult pop-rock sound. So while the albums are no longer Mitchell's voice right in front of the lone guitar for that late '60s folk-rock sound, it has the generic smoky club-produced sound to it that seems to capture a lot of more mature artists.

There is a richness of bass, for example, deeper chords that are not present in earlier works but appear on virtually every track. The best way to phrase this problem is this way: if the earlier albums are too empty with too much space and not enough sound, Turbulent Indigo seems afraid of silence. Deathly afraid of a moment without multiple levels of music.

In fact, the closest to a quiet song on the album is "Last Chance Lost," which featured a contemplatively picked guitar and Mitchell's voice with minimal other instruments. And in contrast, it feels a bit boring alongside the other songs. There's little balance on this album and the result is mostly a bigger sound to the album, yet all of the songs are slower and could easily be characterized as adult contemporary. I doubt this would light the world of many young people on fire.

This may seem a weird complaint, much like the way others did not like Dar Williams' more musically rich End Of The Summer (reviewed here!) because it departed from a more simple musical style. In the case of Turbulent Indigo, the problem truly is that the sound of the album is strangely homogenous and it is somewhat musically boring as a result. And none of the tracks actually shout out "I'm different!" by the music (which is probably why it took me so long to find that perfect song nestled at the end of the album).

What Mitchell has is a great voice. She is able to traverse from soprano to tenor and she does it just fine. On Turbulent Indigo, she carries herself mostly as a smoky-voiced alto and she does not deviate from that sound much on the album. The songs all fall within a pretty standard range and, like the music being somewhat homogenous, hearing Mitchell's slow, clear voice track to track becomes more expected than extraordinary. She is good and her voice is melodic, but this album does not challenge her range any.

But it is worth a listen and that one song seriously makes it worth the buy. Anyone looking for contemplative, well-lyricked music will find Turbulent Indigo to be a good album, and a great album for keeping one in a funk if they're in one. It's not a happy album as it presents deeper songs of personal tragedy and misfortune, but it does set out to do what it promises:

It is turbulent and it'll make or keep one blue.

The best track is the perfect song "The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song)," the weak link is the dippy and repetitive "Yvette In English."

For other Artist Of The Month works, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Collection - Alanis Morissette
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire
Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions - Linda Rondstadt


Check out how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Music Review Index Page where the albums are organized from best to worst!

© 2014, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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