Sunday, March 23, 2014

Joni Mitchell Returns With A Much More Worthy Effort, Both Sides Now.

The Good: Excellent acoustic versions to classic songs, Decent concept, Good voice
The Bad: Rather homogenous sound/presentation.
The Basics: Joni Mitchell's concept album Both Sides Now is a depressing collection of cover songs that dwell on the dissolution of love and the anguish of relationships.

I like concept albums and the truth is, too few of them are so clearly labeled to let the listener know what the concept is or that there is supposed to be a binding concept to an album. Now, I'm not suggesting most listeners aren't smart enough to figure out if they are listening to a concept album or not, but the truth is, it seems like some of them are either so vague or so veiled that the concept could either be multiple things or the collection, the album, seems like a generic collection of pop-rock songs.

With Both Sides Now, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell presents a cycle of songs that portrays a relationship from the exciting beginning to the turbulent middle to the desire to work a relationship out through the end. It is a collection that has a powerful and straightforward concept and the listeners who do not pick it up from the song cycle (though it's made almost impossible when one actually listens to the lyrics, songs like "You've Changed" and "Answer Me, My Love" come so naturally together).

With twelve tracks clocking in at 51:29, Both Sides Now represents a concept that is produced and arranged by Joni Mitchell, but represents very little of Joni Mitchell being presented. While two of the tracks are written by Mitchell, the other ten are considered Torch songs and they are classics, many of which have been covered by virtually every jazz or big band singer to put out a work of covers. Mitchell is given a co-producer credit, but beyond that, this is simply Mitchell singing. She does not play any instruments, which is a departure from most of her prior albums.

But for a change, I have a pretty enthusiastic recommendation for a Joni Mitchell album. This is, ultimately, a good collection of music and the sound of it is ideal for a night of quiet contemplation and just careful holding. This is not a particularly romantic album, though it traces the course of a relationship. This has very much Joni Mitchell's trademark encompassing melancholy throughout it. Instead of being true and joyful with love, this is about the turbulence of romance. By track four, the relationship being sung about is on the rocks and falling apart because of the disillusionment of the protagonist toward love.

So, ultimately, the mood of the album is more sad than celebratory.

Mitchell collects a series of songs that truly speak to one another and allow the listener to progress through the relationship that is being depicted. She includes early on a song so simple in its horrific implications that it is heartwrenching to hear and it becomes impossible not to feel empathy for the musical protagonist. With "You've Changed," she sings the powerful and easy lines, "You've changed / The sparkle in your eyes is gone / Your smile is just a careless yawn / You're breaking my heart / You've changed. . . / Your kisses now are so blasé / You're bored with me in every way / I can't understand / You've changed / You've forgotten the words I love you / And the memories that we've shared / You've ignored all the stars up above you / I can't realize that you ever cared. . ." By the time she gets to the lines "You're not the angel I once knew / No need to tell me, I know we're through / It's all over now" ("You've Changed") pretty much anyone who has had a recent breakup over similar issues will be more or less ready to take their own life. It's a powerful song, despite its simplicity.

But it fits perfectly with the track that follows, "Answer Me, My Love," with its lines like, "Just what sin have I been guilty of / Tell me how I came to lose your love . . . / You were mine yesterday / I believed that love was here to stay / Won't you tell me how I've gone astray . . ." The thing is, it works so well next to the prior song because at the end of relationships, so many of us are emotionally stupid. We recognize the changes and rationally know it's over, but then we become desperate to know why and attempt to fix it. And it's sad and Mitchell presents it true.

And it's sad to see the direction this relationship goes in. As the protagonist struggles for understanding and basically begs for the partner back ("Don't Go To Strangers") to accepting that the other is not coming back ("Don't Worry 'Bout Me") to just wanting it all over ("I Wish I Were In Love Again"). It's an impressive and sad cycle but it works because each track tells another part of the story.

Vocally, Joni Mitchell's presentation is somewhat monolithic. From the lyrics and orchestration the concept of the album becomes quite clear. However, Mitchell tries to make it utterly undeniable what the concept is by presenting stiflingly similar presentations on every track. Conceptually, this is problematic because songs like the yearning and celebratory "At Last" and the melancholy and struggling "Don't Go To Strangers" are presented in the same sultry voice.

Mitchell keeps each track slow and in the safe alto/tenor range that defines the smoky sound one associates with Mitchell and nightclub singers. This cycle evokes the image of a darkened bar with the performer singing the story and the sad thing is, by the time the final track, Both Sides Now comes around, it is hard to accurately and truly judge its intent because it is presented with the same slow, deliberation and sadness as the rest of the album.

There are few exceptions to the slow, sad vocals and the only one that comes immediately to mind is the more upbeat jazzy "Sometimes I'm Happy." Truth be told, Mitchell's vocals are only faster on that track as opposed to higher or otherwise testing her range. At least all of the vocals on Both Sides Now are clear, direct and can be understood clearly and with the passion they are presented with. This is a refreshing change from some of her other albums, like Taming The Tiger.

The entirety of Both Sides Now is presented with an orchestral jazz band. There are oboes, bassoons, clarinets, flute, violins, cellos, saxophones, horns and pianos that accompany Mitchell throughout the musical and lyrical journey she is taking the listener on. She is accompanied by notable soloists like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Mark Isham.

But here the album becomes problematic; Both Sides Now is presented with such a homogenous sound that the tracks begin to lose distinction. Outside "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" and "Sometimes I'm Happy," the tracks have near identical instrumentation and production with the orchestra being well drown out by Joni Mitchell. As a result, the album becomes very difficult to listen to over and over again on a musical level as well as a conceptual/lyrical level. In other words, one of the challenges to replaying this album is not just that it's depressing, one feels by the third track they've already heard all of the music a second time again.

The repetitive quality is exacerbated some by the choice of songs. As presented on Both Sides Now, the orchestral arrangements for "At Last" and "Stormy Weather" are eerily similar. In fact, they share some of the same melodies, it seems. "I Wish I Were In Love Again" has a remarkably strong similarity to the presentation of "Sometimes I'm Happy." And while I completely dig the arrangement and sensibilities behind putting "You've Changed" beside "Answer Me, My Love," the two tracks are presented with almost identical instrumentation so they blend right together.

Still, this is a generally satisfying concept album and it's a worthwhile album for anyone who likes concept albums and/or vocal and orchestral jazz. Mitchell is clear and the concept is strong and the artwork in the liner notes is interesting. But it's definitely one that the listener has to be ready for something somewhat depressing in order to appreciate the depth and range of this work. And I've a feeling when I'm in a better mood, I won't be picking this one up and playing it nearly as much as I am now.

The best track is "You've Changed" (though I do like the new version of the title track) and the low point (strangely considering it might well be the high point in the relationship depicted in the story) is the unmemorable "Comes Love."

For other works by Joni Mitchell, please visit my reviews of:
Song To A Seagull
Ladies Of The Canyon
Turbulent Indigo
Taming The Tiger


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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