This is, in many ways, the most enjoyable book I ever read, aided in part by playing its subject in the background while I read, but largely because it helped me begin to get even more out of the music of Joni Mitchell than I've managed to squeeze so far, in the space of forty plus years. It is, without doubt, a Serious book. By and large it eschews the biographical baggage more characteristic of the majority of books about Mitchell in favour of a detailed analysis of the music and poetry contained in her albums. Apart from being an apparent über-fan, author Lloyd Whitesell himself has some serious qualifications as an associate professor at McGill University, fittingly a Canadian institution, and his other published work concentrates on classical music.
Whitesell here rises above the grovelling fandom into which Mark Bego sank in Both Sides Now, and adds a veneer of scholarship to Sean Nelson's excellent study of Court And Spark. He provides musical and lyrical analysis, examines the different song forms and subject types, considers what he terms the "harmonic palette", and the different points of view from which the songs are composed.
Some of the more technical musical analysis I admit left me in its dust. Whitesell, quite rightly, makes no concessions to the great unwashed such as me in discussing modality and its different forms. I accepted as I read that if I wanted to understand better I needed to go elsewhere. What I did understand, however, was how incredible it was that Mitchell herself was untutored in the more technical aspects, and yet managed to compose music based on an apparently sophisticated "palette". Or perhaps, of course, that's how she managed to break the mould in the first place. Had she known the rules she may never have broken them. Artists such as Van Gogh (Mitchell's favourite) and Picasso essentially had to "unlearn" the rules before they were able to create new forms. Nevertheless, one of the things that struck me was the similarity between the cryptic, non-technical guidelines she gave sidemen such as Wayne Shorter and those Juilliard-schooled Miles Davis gave John McLaughlin.
Another confession I must make is how long it took me to read the book. Not because it is not interestingly written. Quite the opposite. Mainly because of the music itself. Generally I read with some Joni playing softly in the background, but occasionally turned it up to listen and sometimes sing along: in one case I maybe read one page during the whole hour of Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. I also kept pausing to think through what I'd just read in the context of a particular song or group of songs, as for example where Whitesell discusses strophic, verse-chorus and verse-bridge song forms. Quite early on I told myself I was going to have to re-read the book but maybe on a long plane journey where I couldn't suddenly break off reading in order to sing along. (Hmm, on second thoughts, do I want to take the risk?) The point being, I guess, that this is not a throwaway publication. It's one that will more than reward a revisit.
Amongst other cogitations were those stemming directly from the penultimate chapter, Collections and Cycles, in which Whitesell discusses three of Mitchell's albums as concept albums, but contends that in fact they virtually all are such. As I read I drifted beyond the lateral, per-album, concepts, and into the longitudinal ones, the themes that constantly reappear over a period of time. Whitesell himself does this deftly earlier in the book, but I began to put other things together, such as the African sounds of Jungle Line, The Tenth World, Dreamland and Ethiopia, and also reflected on the particular link between The Tenth World and Rumba Mama, from Black Market by Weather Report, Mitchell's de facto studio band, released the same year, 1977. Also, I wondered, is there a connection, even if just a nod of recognition, between Lucinda Williams's Blue, from Essence, with its melancholia and ravens, and Mitchell's own Blue and Black Crow?
Having now finished reading the book, though not analysing it, I am left with a number of questions about the current state of music: Forty years ago I listened to and fell in love with the music of Joni Mitchell. Forty years from now, I wonder, what will my now-15-year-old replacement be listening to that's being made today? What will 2050's Lloyd Whitesell be writing about? And is that even a valid question? Has all pop music now gone ephemeral? Or am I just not on the right wavelength?
Of course there'll never be another Joni Mitchell, but is there anyone making music now who has her stature? I'd love to hear her, or him, if there is.