Monday, June 2, 2014

An Unremarkable, Faith-Based Compilation Ends My Study Of Joni Mitchell’s Works: The Beginning Of Survival.

The Good: Good lyrics, Good vocals, Some of the lyrics
The Bad: Musically murky and monotonous, Thematically overbearing, Overproduced
The Basics: The Beginning Of Survival by Joni Mitchell is a concept album that is overstated, overproduced, and unremarkable as far as compilation albums go.

I like concept albums, but I have a pretty low opinion in general of compilation albums. Most (not all) compilation albums provide no real value for loyal fans of a musical artist and are usually ways for record companies to make money off of previously-released material by an artist. In the case of Joni Mitchell, her compilation The Beginning Of Survival culls from a somewhat unremarkable period in the artist’s career and attempts to make a themed compilation album. The theme is spirituality and corruption in the modern world and while I applaud the idea of a concept compilation album, The Beginning Of Survival has unfortunately little to recommend it.

Long before I was done with my eighth listens to The Beginning Of Survival, it became somewhat painfully clear that when Joni Mitchell is singing about intellectual concepts and philosophical/theological problems, she tends to write songs that fit into a very tight niche. In other words, a good number of songs on The Beginning Of Survival sound like one another. The problem with the execution of that on The Beginning Of Survival is that the sound she comes out with is murky, overproduced (to the point that some of her smartest lyrics are overwhelmed by the instrumental accompaniment on the album) and oppressive. There is not a hummable tune on the album.

With sixteen songs, with over seventy-eight minutes of music, The Beginning Of Survival is a compilation that at least fills the disc! The Beginning Of Survival is the creative works of Joni Mitchell mashed together by producer Mike Ragogna. Are of the songs were written or co-written by Joni Mitchell, save Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water.” Joni Mitchell provides all of the lead vocals and she also plays guitar and keyboards on various tracks. How much creative control she had over the compilation itself is something of a mystery, but the pieces are very much hers.

All of the songs on The Beginning Of Survival come from a time when she was experimenting with more instruments and production elements. Gone is the “one woman and a guitar” folk sound that helped define early Joni Mitchell. Instead, The Beginning Of Survival is packed with guitars and keyboards are accompanied by bass and various drums on each and every track. Unlike many familiar Joni Mitchell albums, The Beginning Of Survival has the songs produced in such a way that the instrumental accompaniment frequently overwhelms the vocals. Sadly, The Beginning Of Survival has no truly compelling or memorable tunes that stick with the listener after they have turned the disc off.

Vocally, Joni Mitchell gives a familiar performance . . . save that her voice is harder to hear over the reverb, drum machines and instrumental production elements. Joni Mitchell has a dusty, lower vocal range on most of the songs on The Beginning Of Survival, though she has the ability to hold notes for a decent amount of time and go into the higher registers when she wants to. On The Beginning Of Survival, she seldom challenges her vocal chords and listeners are likely to be unsurprised by any of her performances on the album. She has a duskier sound to her vocals in the contemplative songs on The Beginning Of Survival. Utterly unsurprising to anyone who is a fan of Joni Mitchell, Mitchell has the ability to go into the soprano range and hold notes, which is cool, though she does it infrequently in the songs on this album.

Lyrically, The Beginning Of Survival is thematically focused on the plight of humanity and the corruption of spiritual aspects to commercial influences. Joni Mitchell’s songs are purposely focused to make a concept album, but the concept is overstated. Everything is bad on The Beginning Of Survival! As well, not all of the best songs were culled in order to make this compilation. Songs like “Lakota,” about the demise of the Native American Indians, lose their punch because of oft-repeated refrains (in this case the cry out of “I am Lakota!”). The song ends up as forgettable and indistinct instead of being potent and memorable.

That said, the messages in the songs on The Beginning Of Survival are good. Mitchell clearly had something to say when she wrote the lines “Hot winds and hunger cries – Ethiopia / Flies in your babies' eyes – Ethiopia / Walking sticks on burning plains / Betrayed by politics / Abandoned by the rains / On and on - the human need / On and on - the human greed profanes” (“Ethiopia”) and she makes that social message loud and clear. Mitchell can be a masterful writer and even this compilation captures that.

Mitchell is not without irony, either. There are very few widely-popular musical artists who still make clever stabs at organized religion. On The Beginning Of Survival, Joni Mitchell does! With lyrics like “Most girls come here pregnant / Some by their own fathers / Bridget got that belly / By her parish priest / We're trying to get things white as snow / All of us woe-begotten daughters / In the streaming stains / Of the Magdalene laundries / Prostitutes and destitute / And temptresses like me / Fallen women / Sentenced into dreamless drudgery / Why do they call this heartless place / Our Lady of Charity?” (“The Magdalene Laundries”), Mitchell mixes Biblical storytelling with contemporary issues in organized religion.

Even during the time period from which these songs were culled, there was more to Joni Mitchell’s albums than these focused songs. There is nothing new or unique on The Beginning Of Survival and one’s collection will easily survive without this compilation.

The best song is “The Beat Of Black Wings,” the low point is the unremarkable “The Three Great Stimulants.”

For other works by Joni Mitchell, please visit my reviews of:
Song To A Seagull
Ladies Of The Canyon
Turbulent Indigo
Taming The Tiger
Chalk Mark In A Rain Storm
Both Sides Now


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

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