Friday, April 12, 2019

Joni Mitchell 20: Both Sides Now

Believe it or else, at one time it wasn’t so common for performers of the rock era to record albums of standards from the pre-rock era. Not that Joni Mitchell was considered rock, but here was one of the preeminent songwriters of the century tackling “moon-June” lyrics. Plus, all those cigarettes hadn’t been kind to her range, so surely this would be a tough listen. Comparisons to Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin—recorded after her own voice had been racked to a rasp, a year before her death—weren’t exactly flattering.
However, such knee-jerk reactions aren’t fair, because Both Sides Now is just fine, taken for what it is. As advertised, these are lush arrangements of songs, most of them older than Joni herself, already done by just about anybody who crooned in front of a microphone. Save a Gordon Jenkins chart for “Stormy Weather”, all the arrangements come from young Vince Mendoza, who’s been quite busy since then. Other soloists include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Mark Isham.
The order of the tunes is supposed to follow the arc of a romance, from excited beginning through crushing defeat to the bruised but determined aftermath, whereupon the cycle starts again. Working with longtime co-producer and onetime spouse Larry Klein, it’s tempting to imagine the daggers thrown from microphone to control room. (As per usual, the package includes several of her paintings and self-portraits; a limited edition included some of these as lithograph packaged in a hat box.)
The most striking tracks would be the two remakes of their own songs, both given the same lush treatment as the rest of the tunes, but so shocking when one is so accustomed to the high soprano of three decades before. “A Case Of You” fits very well halfway through the program, but it’s the title track that truly takes on a different meaning out of the mouth of a woman of experience as opposed to a jaded twentysomething. The song was already melancholy, but now, given the years in between, it’s so much more poignant (particularly at “now old friends, they’re acting strange/and they shake their heads and they tell me that I’ve changed”).
If Both Sides Now had been released by, say, Lady Gaga if she was around then, or Diana Krall, or another modern singer with a smoky voice, it would have been hailed as perfect, essential, dazzling. Get over the fact that Joni will never again hit those high notes, and marvel at how her evolved range wraps around these songs. Even we were skeptical at first, and are now ashamed at our callousness. This really is a special album for late nights, rainy days, and lots of wine.

Joni Mitchell Both Sides Now (2000)—

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