Conventional thinking about Joni Mitchell has it that she's not just a songwriter, but a poet as well. So be it, I retire from the debating society for a brief spell to offer this extended commentary about her on a poetry blog.Brilliant as she has been, Joni Mitchell has also had made nearly as much music that is, shall we say, in equal measures underwritten, bombastic, pretentious, just plain pretentious? She coveted the sobriquet “genius” more conspicuously than any pop star I can remember--even self-mythologizer Dylan rejects the application of the word to his name. And has suggested. She complains of Dylan's lack of authenticity, when the whole notion of art and being an artist is creating things that are inauthentic. The very words “art” and “artist” are intrinsically linked with the word artificer, a term that means, in general, some designed, made manually, an unnatural addition to what is already in place. She bemoans the lack of authenticity and forgets, perhaps, that she, Simon, Dylan and Leonard Cohen, poet-songwriters of the Sixties, were storytellers more than anything, fictionalizing their feelings, their politics, their biographies in the interest of a good yard, a good line, a good insight. Authenticity, I would argue, has more to do with the feeling that a writer succeeds in creating, not the emotion he or she, in fact, felt. She is grumpy, to be sure, but this will not suffice as a justification for her ire. She is famous and cranky, and frankly it's a tedious dirge she replays every chance she gets. Likewise, she virtually demands that she be taken seriously as a musical artist, and she has produced albums that have set out to force the issue.
Her stabs at art song, serial music, jazz material, and feminist surrealist have given us mixed results at best. The fatal flaw in these ambitious efforts were that the worst elements of them were so impossibly precious and self-important that they summarily dwarfed what fresh ideas she might have had at the time. Her ongoing arrogance and bitterness leaves a bad taste. Listeners have taken joy in Joni Mitchell's continual insistence on changing her musical approach, so it wasn't unusual that the release of Hissing of Summer Lawns was hailed, for the most part, as a bold step towards personal and artistic growth. But while Hissing, and her subsequent and less successful Hejira, did indeed show Mitchell expanding herself to more adventurous motifs -- broader song structures, an increasingly impressionistic lyric scan, jazz textures -- the trend toward a more personalized voice has virtually walled her off from most of her fans. Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, her now double record effort, takes the ground gained from the last two albums and converts it into a meandering, amorphous culmination of half-formed concepts. The primary emphasis, musically, is towards jazz modernism, with several songs exceeding ten minutes in length as they ramble over Mitchell's vaguely comprehensible piano chords. She reveals a tendency to hit a strident chord and to let the notes resonate and face as she vocally ruminates over the lyrics while her side players--, Jaco Pastorius and Wayne Shorter from Weather Report, and drummer John Guerin,--do their best to add definition. The lyrics, following suit, are an impressionistic hodgepodge, a string of images, indecipherable references, and gutless epiphanies that should have been edited with a blue pencil. While the more hard-nosed defenders may defend latest with the excuse that a poet may express his or herself in any way they see fit, one still must question the worth of any effort to dissect Reckless Daughter the way one used to mull over Dylan albums. Though any number of matters that Mitchell chooses to deal with may have value to her audience -- spiritual lassitude, the responsibilities of freedom, sexuality into the Middle Ages—she doesn't supply anything resembling hooks, catchphrases or accessible points of reference for them to latch onto. Instead, she gives them art, whether they like it or not. The paradox in Mitchell's stance is that she has thrown craft well outside the window while endeavoring to measure up to “Art” in the upper case.
She has gone from being an artful songwriter to being merely arty, which is a state of mind that takes hold of many of the public personalities who think they know it all and who conceive themselves as no longer bound by conformity. In her own way, Mitchell has joined the ranks of John Lennon, Yes and other bright talents who've over-dosed on their importance. With her subsequent album Mingus, we find ourselves having to admire Mitchell’s willingness to expand and reach beyond the merely chatty confessionalism she’ come to be known for and serve up art that is truly artful. “Arty” is a more telling description, though, as her ambition to impress outstrips craft. There is an aroma of the untutored dilettante banging away on a piano she (or he, for that matter) doesn’t know how to play; the smarty-pants assumes we’ll think it bold and experimental.
But she is not Mingus, the composer, the musician, the artist, and I pray she doesn’t think she is his equal because no one is. I've nothing against an established artist setting out to break away from the stuff they've already done so that they might “advance their art,” but I protest artsy experiments in areas where an artist has no business being. To be specific, Joni Mitchell has little justification to be futzing around with the moody expressionism of jazz, as she does on Mingus. Though the music and lyrics gel better this time than on her previous Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (a bottomless pit of muted, foghorn atonality and free-associative lyrics that expressed the forgettable as to the incomprehensible), Mitchell's primary problem on Mingus is that she's not much of a jazz singer. Her voice sounds thin and attenuated when it should sound alive, brassy, and full-bodied, pallid when it should have color. You find yourself longing for Annie Ross, or Patti Waters. And as a tribute to the late Charles Mingus, this record doesn't quite wash. The bits of dialogue between songs, featuring Mingus reminiscing with the musicians and ever pondering his death, don't give the album any more depth than what the music -- some of it excellent, most of it half-baked -- already supplies. It smacks of tackiness.
Mitchell and other women musicians have are held to another standard, a standard that kept getting moved around I will, though, stand by my view that the kind of artist she wants to be is frankly out of her grasp--if we are to rely on the art, the art has to be good or demanding in ways that amount to an effort that enriches us, not demanding in manner that we create clever euphemisms to describe efforts that are frankly half-measured, half-baked, half-hearted. I was intrigued by and actually enjoyed quite a bit of Hissing, but thereafter, I think her work became spotty and a grind to listen to. I would say the same of Elvis Costello, whom I used to adore and was fairly obsessed by for quite a while, but who, for the last 15 – 20 years, has made music that is diverse, experimental, undercooked, under considered, a facile and heartless eclecticism. Tom Waits, contrarily, is someone whose work has gotten deeper, more profound, musically complex and more emotionally engaged with the characters and the narratives. I used to hate Waits for his Beat pretensions and Bukowski mannerisms, but now I regard him as one of our finest songwriters of the last half decade. I could go on, but my issue with Mitchell is that every interview I've read with her for the last couple of decades has her pissed off about something, something that is unfair to her, and it gets to be a drag to behold when what she's been releasing reeks of the kind of pretentiousness I'd accuse most progressive rock bands of being. Same with Zappa, whose cynicism and slap dash and unending guitar solos spoils a body of work I might otherwise enjoy. For me, it's not about gender, it's about the individual talent.
It's a matter of one expanding into areas what their technical capacity can genuinely, tangibly make new, exciting, hopefully original. Dylan is not a virtuoso nor a composer of extensive technical and imaginative range--he expanded into country, into rock, into reggae, into blues, soul, standards--forms that are mostly folk-based. His results varied, of course, but Dylan had the humility to not try to become something beyond his capacity. Mitchell can expand all she wanted, and the point I'm making isn't whether she should experiment. We're talking results, which have been uneven at best when in her attempts to work with jazz ensembles and symphony orchestras and the like, and her repeated complaints to interviewers that she's being treated unfairly in reviews.