Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Joni Mitchell

  • Clouds [Reprise, 1969] C
  • Ladies of the Canyon [Reprise, 1970] A-
  • Blue [Reprise, 1971] A
  • For the Roses [Asylum, 1972] A
  • Court and Spark [Asylum, 1974] A
  • Miles of Aisles [Asylum, 1974] B-
  • The Hissing of Summer Lawns [Asylum, 1975] B
  • Hejira [Asylum, 1976] B+
  • Don Juan's Reckless Daughter [Asylum, 1977] B-
  • Mingus [Asylum, 1979] C+
  • Wild Things Run Fast [Geffen, 1982] B
  • Dog Eat Dog [Geffen, 1985] B+
  • Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm [Geffen, 1988] C
  • Night Ride Home [Geffen, 1991] Dud
  • Turbulent Indigo [Reprise, 1994] Choice Cuts
  • Hits [Reprise, 1996] A-
  • Taming the Tiger [Reprise, 1998] Choice Cuts
  • Both Sides Now [Reprise, 2000] A-
  • Travelogue [Nonesuch, 2002] Dud
  • Shine [Hear Music, 2007] Dud

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Clouds [Reprise, 1969]
Without David Crosby's production--this is basically a voice-and-acoustic record--Joni's voice sounds malnourished, which it is. Three excellent songs, but two of them, "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning," have been done better elsewhere. (By the way, nightclub singer Gloria Loring's version of "Chelsea Morning" is better than Judy Collins'.) The other one is called "Roses Blue." C

Ladies of the Canyon [Reprise, 1970]
Joni's new dependence on piano implies a move from the open air to the drawing room--or at least living area--that's reflected in richer, more sophisticated songs. Sometimes the wordplay is still laughably high school--"lookout thru the pain" my eye. But "Both Sides Now" was only the beginning, and this album offers at least half a dozen continuations, all in different directions. Side two leads off with songs to a (real) FM DJ and a (figurative?) priest and includes her versions of "Woodstock" and "The Circle Game" as well as my own favorite, "Big Yellow Taxi," an ecology song with a trick ending. A-

Blue [Reprise, 1971]
As Joni grooves with the easy-swinging elite-rock sound of California's pop aristocrats, her relation to their (and her own) easy-swinging sexual ethic becomes more probing. But thoughtfulness isn't exactly making her sisterly--I've even heard one woman complain that she can't sing Joni's melodies any more. Well, too bad--they're getting stronger all the time, just like the lyrics. From the eternal ebullience of "All I Want" to the month-after melancholy of "Blue," this battlefront report on the fitful joys of buy-now pay-later love offers an exciting, scary glimpse of a woman in a man's world. A

For the Roses [Asylum, 1972]
Sometimes her complaints about the men who have failed her sound petulant, but the appearance of petulance is one of the prices of liberation. If this has none of the ingratiating ease of Blue, that's because Mitchell has smartened up--she's more wary, more cynical. Perhaps as a result, the music, which takes on classical colors from Tom Scott's woodwinds and Bobby Notkoff's chamber strings, is more calculated. Where the pretty swoops of her voice used to sound like a semiconscious parody of the demands placed on all female voices and all females, these sinuous, complex melodies have been composed to her vocal contours with palpable forethought. They reward stubborn attention with almost hypnotic appeal. A

Court and Spark [Asylum, 1974]
The first album she's ever made that doesn't sound like a musical departure--it's almost standard rock, For the Roses gone mainstream. But the relative smoothness is a respite rather than a copout, the cover version of "Twisted" suggests a brave future, and she's the best singer-songwriter there is right now. Even the decrease in verbal daring--the lyrics are quite personal and literal--makes for a winning directness in songs like "Help Me" and "Raised on Robbery." Now all I want to know is whether "Free Man in Paris" is about David Geffen. A

Miles of Aisles [Asylum, 1974]
The two Joni-with-guitar/piano/dulcimer sides of this live double are impossibly tedious even though she's learned to sing songs that were beyond her half a decade ago--if she was so crazy about folkie-purist records she would have gone that way in the studio originally. The two new songs are mere bait--they wouldn't be on the album if she'd recorded them before. And the two sides with the L.A. Express establish her as the most gifted of the new folky-jazzy singers--I mean, Kenny Rankin should just forget it. B-

The Hissing of Summer Lawns [Asylum, 1975]
Mitchell's transition from great songwriter to not-bad poet is meeting resistance from her talent and good sense, but I guess you can't fight "progress." Not that she's abandoned music--the supple accompaniment here is the most ambitious of her career. But if she wants jazz she could do better than Tom Scott's El Lay coolcats, and the sad truth is that only on a couple of cuts--"The Jungle Line" and "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow"--do these skillful sound effects strengthen the lyrics. The result is that Mitchell's words must stand pretty much on their own, and while she can be rewarding to read--"The Boho Dance" is a lot sharper than most I'm-proud-to-be-a-star songs--she's basically a West Coast Erica Jong. If that sounds peachy to you, enjoy. B

Hejira [Asylum, 1976]
Album eight is most impressive for the cunning with which Mitchell subjugates melody to the natural music of language itself. Whereas in the past only her naive intensity has made it possible to overlook her old-fashioned prosody, here she achieves a sinuous lyricism that is genuinely innovative. Unfortunately, the chief satisfaction of Mitchell's words--the way they map a woman's reality--seems to diminish as her autonomy increases. The reflections of a rich, faithless, compulsively mobile, and compulsively romantic female are only marginally more valuable than those of her marginally more privileged male counterparts, especially the third or fourth time around. It ain't her, bub, it ain't her you're lookin' for. B+

Don Juan's Reckless Daughter [Asylum, 1977]
This double album presents a real critic's dilemma--I'm sure it's boring, but I'm not sure how boring. Insofar as it isn't, Jaco Pastorius deserves as much credit as the artiste. Just the way it did on Hejira, his bass enables her to deal with the syntheses that obsess her--melody and rhythm, form and anima. But only on the title cut does he enable her to realize them. B-

Mingus [Asylum, 1979]
Okay, okay, a brave experiment, but lots of times experiments fail. There's more spontaneity, wisdom, and humor in the 2:25 of Mingus "raps" than in all her hand-tooled lyrics, and her voice isn't rich or graceful enough to flesh out music that gains no swing from a backing band a/k/a Weather Report. C+

Wild Things Run Fast [Geffen, 1982]
This is good Joni, for the first time since the mid-'70s, and I suspect it comes too late, because good Joni simply means old Joni, and old Joni is better. I mean, if she'd put "Solid Love" at the very end I still wouldn't believe her, but at least I'd think she'd learned something. Instead she proves her maturity with a climactic hymn to St. Paul's kind of love which is much the worst of the three covers--because to be honest the Al Hibbler and Elvis Presley songs are what kept me listening. B

Dog Eat Dog [Geffen, 1985]
When you peruse the lyrics, which are of course provided, the rage she directs at evangelists, racketeers, financiers, and so forth seems like the usual none-too-deep left-liberal modernism--a "culture in decline" enthralled by hedonism and rapacity and the image, tsk-tsk. But by taking her mind off her ever-loving self she's broken a long drought. There's no what-shall-I-do ennui in her singing; she isn't musing, she's telling us something, and her interest in these well-expressed middlebrow clichés comes through. Damned if I can tell just what Thomas Dolby has done for her jazzbo sound, but I suspect he helps as well. Maybe he convinced her it was pop music. B+

Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm [Geffen, 1988]
Dreaming, fabulizing, playing the ingenue, speaking for the displaced Native American, preaching about materialism and ecocatastrophe and the engines of war (and abortion, though not so's you can tell where she stands), she's matured into a sententious liberal. Give me the Poet of the Me Decade any day. At least Joan Baez is a sententious radical. C

Night Ride Home [Geffen, 1991] Dud

Turbulent Indigo [Reprise, 1994]
"Last Chance Lost" Choice Cuts

Hits [Reprise, 1996]
Would it were modesty that inspired her to release the hour-long Hits and Misses rather than the usual multi-CD doorstop. But given that she's fed her enormous ego hunks of what was once an equally enormous talent for 20 years now, figure the opposite. Unable to abide the thought of superceding any portion of her catalogue, much less adjudging some of it less worthy than the rest, the Grammy-winning Billboard and BMI awardee elected to concentrate beloved older songs in one compilation and leaden newer ones in another. The result is an uncommonly fabulous educational tool for the Ani DiFranco fan on your list that does more for the two post-1980 items it tacks on than Misses does for the seven that weigh it down. But since the cream of the 15 selections can also be found on her four prime early-'70s albums--For the Roses, Court and Spark, Blue, and Ladies of the Canyon--it's docked a notch for inutility. A-

Taming the Tiger [Reprise, 1998]
"Lead Balloon" Choice Cuts

Both Sides Now [Reprise, 2000]
My favorite Joni story is that they tried to do a TV special on her and none of her old friends would pitch in. Even if it's a dumb rumor or a damned lie, it's a hell of a metaphor for someone who loves herself so much nobody else need bother, and yet another reason to scoff at her concept song cycle about the rise and fall of an affair. But after decades of pretentious pronouncements on art, jazz, and her own magnificence, this very if briefly great singer-songwriter proves herself a major interpretive singer. Lucky to write two decent songs a decade now, she instead applies her smoked contralto to a knowledgeable selection of superb material by mostly second-echelon Tin Pan Alley craftsmen (and I do mean men). Splitting the difference between pop and jazz like the Chairman himself, she doesn't transform the melodies so much as texture them, and on a few highlights--on "Comes Love" and "You've Changed," on "When love congeals/It soon reveals/The faint aroma of performing seals"--she bores so deep into the words you'd think she'd written them herself back when she had something to say. But no, that's "A Case of You" and "Both Sides Now"--both of which, you can bet the mortgage, she makes sure belong. A-

Travelogue [Nonesuch, 2002] Dud

Shine [Hear Music, 2007] Dud

See Also