While I have been at Steamboat MusicFest, I have been listening to a great deal of Joni Mitchell. She is simply one of my favorite songwriters of all time. Her music is so unique that I both understand and don’t understand why she isn’t more popular. I understand that her music can be challenging in the way that so very few singer songwriters are, with serpentine melodies and completely unique chord progressions. But I also don’t understand as she is a giant in terms of talent and so very few artists have ever come close to what she has accomplished. I think she is haunted by the tag of FEMALE singer songwriter, as in my mind, she is the peer and equal of someone like Dylan, whom I also love and respect. In fact she is probably more original and talented on a purely musical level than Dylan is. While someone like Dylan or Neil Young, who is also from Canada like Mitchell, are regarded as almost founding fathers by this point, I feel like Mitchell is acknowledged in a much more limited way.
Although everyone should own what many consider her masterpiece, Blue, I would also recommend that everyone check out her 70’s trilogy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. This is not to say that this is the only work that she has worth hearing. Although I don’t own every album she has ever made, I find something valuable in all the periods of her music. Her last studio album, Shine, is simply fantastic, with a title song among the many that simply show she has never stopped being a master. One of the hardest subjects to write about without coming across as cheesy is the environmental concerns of the day, but she does so on this album with a poetic depth that no one, outside of maybe Jackson Browne, has been able to do.
The 70’s trilogy that I mentioned is some of the most original music of all time. It is expansive work, where each album seems like its own universe. If one listens to pop music, like Nick Hornby suggests, until one can solve the puzzle of each song, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of these records. They seem as if they were created by someone on another plain than most normal humans operate on. This music is shape shifting as folk, jazz, pop, rock and occasional tribal music intertwine and emerge with a fluidity that very few could accomplish. She holds her own with musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, and seems more than a capable leader of such talents. In fact she takes someone like him, makes his work more accessible, and loses none of the musicality in the process.
Mitchell’s guitar playing is some of the most original in recorded history. She uses a wide variety of tunings and creates chord structures that are simply one of a kind. Rhythmically influenced by jazz at times, she has a style, combined with the tunings, that sounds unlike any other singer songwriter of her or any time period. While most greats, like the above mentioned Dylan and Young, synthesize what came before them into their own style, Mitchell seems to use different elements of music as a launch pad to take off to her own unique stratosphere.
Her melodies are again a thing completely of their own. Listen to one of her most popular albums, Court and Spark, and ask yourself how this album became so popular. Not many humans could sing, let alone write those melodies. While they eventually ingrain themselves into your subconscious, they are not the simple hooks of pop music. That album alone makes me wonder if music audiences were more advanced in their tastes back then, then they are now.
Enough cannot also be said about her lyrics. They are simply some of the most poetic ever recorded. Listen to the wordplay, the intelligence, and the wit displayed throughout her career. She is the equal of a Dylan, without copying him. Sometimes it almost seems as if she came out of nowhere. While Dylan built an entirely new language in pop music, it was definitely rooted in the traditions of the folk world. Mitchell seems to create a language all of her own, especially once she got to the above mentioned trilogy, that is still relatable as often as it is complex.
Now there is no doubt that Dylan had a greater cultural impact. I am also not trying to say that Mitchell is better than Dylan. I am only trying to make the case that if you want to talk about truly originals in music, she is one of the few that should be put on equal footing with the all time greats. And while better or greater mean something different than more original, I would argue that Mitchell is actually more original than most of the all time greats. She has consistently turned out fantastic mind bending stuff. I constantly put on her records and am left awestruck at the sheer mastery of each component of song craft and playing. If you are a real music fan, I am telling you to get this stuff. If you can open yourself to what she is doing, and she definitely is an acquired taste at times, this is music that will open up entire worlds that no one else has explored. We will not see the likes of her again. She is a true one of a kind and should be realized as such.