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A Fond Farewell?
on 17 December 2002
What it is to grow old with grace. Joni Mitchell, who has always managed to marry emotional resonance with a puckish, mercurial quality, is not quite in the twilight of her years. Yet one senses that she knows that as a beacon for an intelligent, counter-culture, her days are done. And so to an affectionate and at times wistful look back to a career that has always seemed, both innovative and, as they say, 'fashionably late'. But having made classics, how can you possibly better them?
The rich orchestral tones of her last album, "Both Sides Now" caught many unawares. Here she follows the same formula, but applies it solely to her own back catalogue. Vince Mendoza's arrangements are a touch lighter and subtler than on "Both Sides..." and bring new depth to what was already a rich canon of songs.
I am not a die-hard Mitchellite, I slipped in for "Hissing..." and out after "Hejira", so I am coming fresh to songs that for many are, in their original versions, treasured classics. But the re-workings on the material I do know, are breathtaking. Strings and French horns turn "Woodstock" into a rich, graceful and epic lament. "God Must Be A Boogie Man" accompanied by a clarinet ensemble, strings and Wayne Shorter's soprano sax, dances in a darkly knowing way. A male voice choir unexpectedly pops up on "The Sire Of Sorrow" to add an edge of drama like the chorus in a Bach Mass. "Refuge of The Roads" opens with heavenly harp while "The Last Time I Saw Richard" features stunningly beautiful writing for a wind and strings ensemble. These versions may not better, but they are almost certainly deeper
Some may not take kindly to the slightly gruffer Mitchell voice, mellowed out and lacking an upper edge. Yet it has a gorgeous wispiness about, and frequently shot through with seeming lament for good-years-gone-by it has a kind of ever-present warmth.
Mitchell has given her select entourage of adoring fans much over the years. Reputedly this is her last-ever album. To close her career with a selection of her finest songs, lovingly and intelligently orchestrated and sung with a wistful tenderness, is a parting present almost beyond compare. "Nothing lasts for long" sings Joni on "Chinese Café before slipping seamlessly and briefly into "Unchained Melody". Pathos has seldom been so welcome.