“I think the artist has always been in conflict, maybe because he has time on his hands to think with a lot of high ideals and values, and he’s got to recognize their beauty.
“And at the same time, the flesh is weak and has too many appetites, so you’re in that continual conflict with yourself, you know. You can express these really high and beautiful thoughts but your life may not back them up.” Joni Mitchell, from conversations in the book Both Sides Now: Conversations With Malka Marom.
There couldn’t be truer, more poignant words than those of the artist herself about the conclave of the creative process. It’s a monumental task in itself to comprehend the work of an artist, and that’s barely scratching the surface. Let’s face it: most artists don’t make albums anymore; any album that comes our way at Backseat is a rarity and is received in with great appetite and fervour. So when it comes to a legendary artist like Joni Mitchell, who’s decided to release remastered versions of her prolific four-album run for Reprise Records, I have to insist that there’s a underlying tone of artistic license there. It’s a license to rework the music that has quite literally shaped the careers and influences far and beyond, because well, Joni decided it just needed to be done. She has always been an advocate for creative control, calling it quite rightly ‘my own way of seeing my art’, and therefore it comes as no surprise that she felt the albums needed to be remastered. For people to understand what a feat that is, let’s dive into a short history of these four albums.
On June 22nd, 1971, Joni Mitchell released Blue, concluding her four-album run for Reprise with an album considered by many to be one of the greatest of all time. Unapologetically confessional, emotionally unsettling, the songs have been celebrated by music lovers and critics alike for decades while inspiring artists as diverse as Prince and Taylor Swift.
Even today, its stature as a masterpiece continues to grow. Just last year, the album was named #3 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. What Blue did for most songwriters ( myself included ) was inherent in the album’s exploration of the human psyche . It created the space to feel and the freedom to heal ; the power to voice even the darkest parts of our very being, and the wisdom to accept the experiences as they come. That was, inevitably Joni’s life. It was widely accepted that her life was separate from her art , perhaps not always intentionally, and as her career grew to even more phenomenal ingenuity, so did her own serving voice of poetic justice.
Song To A Seagull (1968), Clouds (1969), and Ladies Of The Canyon (1970). are the other three albums available in this stellar release celebrating the 50th anniversary of Blue. In the case of Song To A Seagull, the original mix has been recently updated by Mitchell and mixer Matt Lee. “The original mix was atrocious,” says Mitchell. “It sounded like it was recorded under a jello bowl, so I fixed it!” I had to laugh at that because when I heard that album for the first time I thought to myself: here’s a singer whose voice is so pure it bounces off the walls of your childhood innocence, only to urge you to embrace adulthood just as quickly. It’s a coming of age album, and one that jumpstarted Joni’s songwriting prowess.
Clouds and Ladies Of The Canyon are by far the most celebrated of Joni’s albums, and need to be revisited at various stages of your life, if you’re lucky.
Joni’s guitar playing was something that truly made her unique. Self-taught, she was initially influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan, even Joan Baez, but soon enough, she undeniably made it a point to sound like herself. In a male-dominated industry, admirers like David Crosby and Eric Clapton would sit with Joni and ask her what chords she was in fact playing. I use the Malka Maron’s book once again to highlight Joni’s response to this, with her trademark suspended chords:
“Well, I only wrote two songs in standard tuning. “Urge for Going”, which was one of the very first ones, if not the first one I wrote – the first one I considered successful anyway.
“I never wrote and played in standard tuning again, because everything sounded like i was mined out. No matter how well you played in it, it just seemed like a tired and worn-out road. Everything sounded derivative … before I began my own tunings, which a lot of them turned into sus chords. Well, I used to call them, not knowing what sus chords was myself, I called them chords of inquiry.
“They have a question mark in them. They’re sustained. Men don’t like them because they like resolution, just like they do in life.”
If that alone doesn’t entice you to revisit her craft, inventive and definitively originally way of composing , I rest my case. However, if you’re more of a songwriter and poet, Ladies Of The Canyon, the last in the series of the Reprise albums (and my personal all time favourite) is your jam. It includes essential tracks like “The Circle Game”, “For Free,” “Both Sides, Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” and “Woodstock .”
Ladies Of The Canyon and Blue were both certified platinum, while the latter was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. You could say, in retrospect, that these could have been her greatest hits, only because as audience members we never expect anything greater to come out after such a magnus opus.
Obviously, that isn’t the case with Joni. It’s an album which delves into the metanarrative, complete with, one could arguably say, ‘all sides’ of Joni. From the performing artist in “For Free” who jams in harmony with the street performer, to the young woman alone in her flat who after all her experiences can barely recall ” love’s illusions “ and collectively speaking for most of us with “I really don’t know love at all”. From imagining what it was like to attend Woodstock after she was unable to ( to this day I can’t begin to comprehend her imaginative genius) to one of the most celebrated environmental activist song, with ‘Big Yellow Taxi”.
It’s no wonder that we have to celebrate Joni. Sometimes we really don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone .Thankfully, Joni Mitchell’s music lives on, and will continue to do so for those who wander, and are not lost.
The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) will be available on June 25th in 4xCD and on 4xLP 180-gram vinyl (in a limited edition of 10,000), as well as digitally. The newly remastered version of “A Case Of You” from Blue is available now on all digital download and streaming services; we’ve embedded that for you below.
Fans who pre-order the CD or LP version of The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) from Eurostore.JoniMitchell.com will also receive an exclusive limited edition 7”x7” print of the self-portrait featured on the cover art. The first ever line of official Joni Mitchell merch has also launched exclusively at the official website.