Joni Mitchell wasn’t yet 25 when she first gifted the world her song “Both Sides Now.” Judy Collins made its first commercially-released recording; soon artists were lining up to record it, including Frank Sinatra. The 25-year old Mitchell herself released it in 1969. In what might be her most famous song, she asserted, “I really don’t know love at all.” Flash-forward to the present day, and the 71-year old singer-songwriter-artist seems well-acquainted with the vagaries of that most universal subject. Mitchell has curated a retrospective of her career in the form of a new 4-CD box set appropriately entitled Love Has Many Faces. Subtitled A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting to Be Danced, the box finds Mitchell eschewing a traditional approach to create a new creative arc based on her music, assembled in four acts.
Love Has Many Faces doesn’t present its acts as traditional narratives, but rather as thematic suites. Together, they challenge listeners to view Mitchell’s music and career in a new context. Only a rough one-third of the set is drawn from the 1970s, during which she thrived as a leading light of the “singer-songwriter” movement. As a result, favorite songs like “Help Me,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Chelsea Morning,” “Free Man in Paris” and “Woodstock” are nowhere to be found, discarded in favor of lesser-known work from the 1980s and onward. Stylistically, the box also emphasizes the jazz that has long been a vital part of her creative palette. If the resulting compilation of songs drastically underrepresents the folk-rock artist with whom so many of her fans first fell in love, it’s still a sharp, compelling, reflective and deeply personal journey through love and the ways we make contact.
Join us after the jump as we dive into this box!
Nostalgic imagery of the 1950s, whether turned on its head or presented blissfully free of irony, is a key thread through Act I, “Birth of Rock and Roll Days.” The sound of liberation pulsates through the act’s opening salvo, “In France They Kiss on Main Street” (“Amour, mama, not cheap display!”). “They’ve been broken in churches and schools/And molded to middle class circumstance,” Mitchell observes of a generation. But there was an out, at least for her: “Rolling, rolling, rock and rolling…” Her voice is at its most exultantly pure on the song, supported by James Taylor and two-thirds of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Cars, radios, Christmas, dancing, the old songs – these images all recur, like rock and roll itself, throughout these songs. Mitchell’s lyrics, needless to say, are clever, incisive and sensual, and sometimes all three at once, as on “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” (also enhanced by a contribution, this time on harmonica, from her onetime lover and mutual admirer, Graham Nash.)
“River” has become a standard of late, recorded by everybody from Barry Manilow to Idina Menzel, but there’s still an unmatched purity and yearning in the original, simple piano-and-voice rendition which is sandwiched here between “Dancin’ Clown” – a rather bizarre 1980s mini-musical with Billy Idol and Tom Petty (’nuff said?) – and “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.” The latter, a track from 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, is at the heart of this act and gives it its title: “We were wild in the old days/Birth of rock and roll days/Now your kids are coming up straight/And my child’s a stranger.” Indeed, though there may be a place for nostalgia, it inevitably takes a backseat to a sometimes-cruel reality. She heartbreakingly weaves “Unchained Melody” (“And time goes by so slowly…”) with the realization that “Nothing lasts for long.” Listening to these selections back to back, it’s hard not to marvel at how deftly Mitchell has sequenced these songs to create connective tissue. “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody” is followed immediately by another collision of past and present, 1975’s “Harry’s House/Centerpiece” (featuring Johnny Mandel and Jon Hendricks’ “Centerpiece”). The final lyric of “Shades of Scarlett Conquering” (“She says, ‘A woman must have everything'”) is followed with the opening line “Got to be a winner, trophy winner” from “Number One.” One song might comment on the next, or even contradict it. But by the end of this disc, disillusionment has set in for the narrator; 1991’s “The Windfall (Everything for Nothing)” is something like a Mitchell variation of “Positively 4th Street,” fuming with ire at an ex-paramour, whereas the closing song of Disc One, “Come In from the Cold,” strikes a bittersweet note as it beautifully ruminates on the nature of our hearts’ desires and how we share them.
Act Two is titled “The Light Is Hard to Find,” but even when contemplating the dark (her most acclaimed album is, of course, named Blue), Mitchell has radiated light. The same can be said for this act. When the going gets dark, it’s plenty dark, as on “No Apologies” (“No apologies to the outraged Japanese/No ‘sorry, little girl’/The pigs just took her”) or “Not to Blame” (“Your charitable acts seemed out of place/With the beauty, with your fist marks on her face”). “Trouble Child” is a wrenchingly eloquent musing on the nature of depression and isolation, with quotes from Nietzsche woven into the lyric. But there’s empathy and strength in the song, as in so much of Mitchell’s music here. It’s chilling and prescient to listen to “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey” from 1979’s Mingus: “The cops don’t seem to care/For derelicts or ladies of the night/They’re weeds for yanking out of sight…”
Again, there are plenty of lyrical connections to be made, as when Mitchell follows up her own “Nothing Can Be Done” with her big-band rendition of the standard “Comes Love,” which repeats that same phrase numerous times in its own lyric. Or when the imagery of waving a white flag appears in both “Hana” and “Hejira,” songs separated by decades. (The latter is heard in its Travelogue orchestral re-recording.) “Oh, but sometimes the light can be so hard to find,” Mitchell sings in “Moon at the Window,” a 1982 cut with expressive soprano sax from Wayne Shorter. Thankfully, she’s found it, even on this disc featuring many of her most challenging and uncompromising compositions.
For all the turmoil that precedes it, the second act/disc of Love Has Many Faces ends with the sound of crickets and the soft, sensual “Night Ride Home.” It strikes a contented note which continues through the beginning of the third act, “Love Has Many Faces,” and its lush opening, a cover of the 1933 standard “You’re My Thrill.” Underrated songs like “A Strange Boy,” “Just Like This Train” and “You Dream Flat Tires” (the latter in its orchestral Travelogue recording with the likes of Plas Johnson on saxophone and Billy Preston on organ) feature typically indelible imagery, filled with rich details and sharp observations; the earthy, sensuous “All I Want” and “Carey,” both from 1971’s Blue, jolt on this disc only because they’re surrounded by so many songs from Mitchell’s later period, with her more burnished vocals and wizened recollections of loves come and gone. (The constantly shifting production styles can also be jarring.) The shifting perspective – from so-called “confessional” songs to character studies and stories in song – also makes for particularly intense listening here. Mitchell’s journeys in Act 3 include sojourns to France, Italy and everywhere in between, but the title of the fourth and final act/disc asserts, “If You Want Me, I’ll Be in the Bar.” It’s as good a place as any for her storytelling to come to life.
Love Has Many Faces walks the fine line between the first-person, observational songs on which Mitchell largely made her name and her subsequent journeys down various musical paths. “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” from the jazz-influenced album of the same name is not the most extractable item in Mitchell’s diverse catalogue, and so it opens the fourth act on an impressionistic note.
In a bar, one might conceivably hear the bittersweet reflection of “Two Grey Rooms” or the truthful advice of “Down to You,” sung by a beyond-her-years-wise Joni on 1974’s landmark Court and Spark. Spirits figure into the potent three-song sequence of “A Case of You,” “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (via Travelogue) and the raucous “Raised on Robbery,” while “Sweet Sucker Dance” is a Mitchell spin on what Sinatra would have called a “saloon song,” complete with Wayne, Herbie and Jaco (no last names required) bringing the cool Mingus melody to life. By the time Mitchell wraps things up with a well-earned “Both Sides Now” (via her 2000 recording, not the original version) and a sweet “My Best to You,” the artist has certainly lived up to her promise, however idiosyncratically, of displaying love’s many faces through her five decades of song.
Joni Mitchell’s first-ever box set, Love Has Many Faces is packaged in a hardcover book format. The centerpiece of the 52-page book is an 8,000+ word note scribed by Mitchell with her typical candor. “This box set is rising like the phoenix from the ashes of two dead projects – a ballet and a horrendously ill-conceived box set. They started it without me. They hired two incompetents to ‘do’ me,” she writes at one point, seething at plans that the box would include “discarded and damaged work” (read: outtakes). “‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked the bosses. ‘That’s the way it’s done’ was the reply. ‘Not to me,’ I said. And I squelched it.” As overseen by Mitchell to her exacting specifications, the set happily includes full lyrics and a charming hand-written note explaining a discrepancy between the printed track listing and what’s heard on the disc. The book lacks the typical credits usually found in an undertaking such as this one; as far as the (fine) mastering goes, there’s an indication that “most of this music was assembled at home. Joni was assisted by Matt Lee and Steve Wessing. Additional mastering was provided by Bernie Grundman.” There are some tweaks to the material, too, including a new trumpet solo on “Borderline” by Ambrose Akinmusire.
No, Love Has Many Faces isn’t the chronologically-arranged career-overview-with-rarities hoped for by so many fans and collectors. Mitchell’s notes seem to indicate that such a set will remain a pipe dream. But as a defiantly alternative look at the frequently stunning music made by one of popular music’s most restless artists, this set is not just compelling, but moreover, rarely less than fascinating.