Box set reissues can sometimes feel like they exist for their own sake, just to fill a gap on completists shelves or keep an artiste’s name current.
But Joni Mitchell’s new collection The Asylum Albums 1972-75 is something else.
Funnily enough, there’s nothing new here, beyond a crisp remastering job and lovely packaging. But the placing together of For The Roses, Court & Spark, the live album Miles Of Aisles and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, throws into stark relief one of the most profound periods of musical evolution of any artiste at any time in history.
Mitchell’s metamorphosis in this time period was up there with Bob Dylan or Miles Davis going electric, with any shift in persona or sound that Bowie or Prince ever enacted.
She was already into her imperial phase before she signed to her friend and confidant David Geffen’s Asylum label, mind: her Blue album in 1971 saw to that.
Blue marked her maturation from being bound to the folk milieu (albeit a fascinating individualist within it) to being a total artiste beyond genre, and Los Angeles countercultural royalty to boot.
It ushered in the inward-looking, analytical 70s singer-songwriter aesthetic with its brutal soul-baring and archly observed travelogues and character sketches.
For The Roses, though, is a consolidation.
Musically it remains in the territory of Blue, with Mitchell’s acoustic guitar strums and piano dominating – and though not quite as close to the bone lyrically it is very obviously personal. It continues, too, her flipping of the traditional gender roles of poet and muse, with inspiration from her creative, and often famous, lovers.
Where Blue touched on intoxication with Leonard Cohen, domesticity with Graham Nash and enchantment with James Taylor, Roses focuses heavily on Taylor, their relationship’s end and his heroin use (the latter on the chilling "Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire").
It retains playfulness among the pain and steely-eyed calculation of human souls, too.
“You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” – apparently a response to Geffen’s challenge to write a hit – continues the swinging sass of “Carey” from Blue, though with an iron fist in its poppy velvet glove with lines like: “I know you don't like weak women / You get bored so quick / And you don't like strong women / 'Cause they're hip to your tricks.”
It also contains some small musical hints as to what would come next.
A high saxophone line winding its way through “…Sweet Fire”, and even more so the building wind instrument chords that rise up in the middle of the final song “Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig`s Tune)” are subtle, fitting in context, but show just where Mitchell’s ambition in arrangement was heading on the next album, Court & Spark.
During the initial practice sessions for that record, session drummer Russ Kunkel was tried out and has been quoted as saying: “Joni, I can’t play to this music. I think you should get yourself a jazz drummer.”
This led to Joni scouring jazz clubs until she found John Guerin, who would be her drummer, sparring partner and lover for four years to come, and also precipitated her wholesale immersion in Coltrane, Mingus and more.
Court & Spark isn’t a jazz album (bar perhaps the cabaret scatting of closer “Twisted”), but it does let Mitchell’s structures flow free, and it grooves constantly.
And those flute and sax harmonies are all over it, most notably on the instantly recognisable introduction to “Free Man in Paris” – a beautiful character sketch of Geffen briefly escaping his relentless hustle.
And that sense of groove, that was there in “Carey” and “…Radio”, and even in earlier breakthrough tracks like “Chelsea Morning”, is omnipresent.
In fact, though the subject matter can be as dark as ever – as in “Car On A Hill” which was inspired by her troubled relationship with Jackson Browne – this is probably the most consistently funky record she ever made.
What Steely Dan tried so hard to do in recruiting LA’s finest jazz players to realise their theatrical vision, Mitchell achieved here seemingly effortlessly.
Most of all, there’s “Help Me”, a song with every player so perfectly in-the-pocket, Mitchell included, that it inspired no less than Prince to write about it in a lyric.
You can hear that groove just as much on the live album Miles Of Aisles. Featuring mostly songs from her early, pre-Roses, days, it is split between a mid-section of solo balladeering and opening and closing sections with her whole new band.
And it too is soaked in subtle funk. Classics like “Carey” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” rolling so elegantly along with a world class rhythm section – verging on what now gets called “yacht rock”.
Hearing this, and the very early, very folky “the circle game” becoming an entrancingly genial singalong, makes you realise just how mainstream a singer Mitchell could have become – a la her near contemporary Carly Simon, if she’d have continued down the groovy adult contemporary route.
She didn’t though. She really didn’t.
Instead, she made The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. This is as great a leap again, or greater, than from Roses to Court.
It starts off innocuously enough, with “In France They Kiss On Main Street”, one of Mitchell’s most straightforwardly joyous slice-of-life songs and another borderline yacht rock groover – albeit with its groove extraordinarily complex under the surface.
But then straight away you’re into “The Jungle Line” with its backing created from a looped tape of Burundi drummers – very possibly the first time a mainstream artist had built a song from a sample of another – and weird, fever-dream lyrics.
From there on in, it’s high drama all the way.
Lyrically Mitchell’s always impeccable ability to spin social commentary from relationship and domestic stories is still there, but it’s amped up with high literary symbolism: this is Nietzche, Blake and Eliot in modish 70s lounges.
It dives into the abstracted depths of creative process (the closer “Shadows And Light”), and into the brute reality of patriarchy (“Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow”).
And the writing and production (the latter, as ever, all by Mitchell herself) flows any way it wants: from Broadway to avant-classical, from country to Curtis Mayfield, from folk throwback (the exquisite “Sweet Bird”) straight into the synth-led ambient choir of “Shadows And Light” without missing a beat.
This album confused critics and fans at the time and marked the end of Mitchell’s triumphal early 70s superstardom.
But the genius that flows through it has become clearer in time, and it is rightly hailed as a classic now. And what other record, after all, could be cited as a major influence by both Prince and Morrissey?
But there’s something even more special about hearing it in the context of this collection: hearing the personal and musical developments accumulating over the course of the albums until the explosive achievement of Hissing blows your mind.
Listening to the four in sequence cannot be recommended enough, and while we can go back and forth about the merits of vinyl LPs in general there’s something very special about having the four as they would have been played at the time of release: a kind of Mitchell ritual that only opens them up more.
This is an artefact for the ages!
All Images: Joel Bernstein
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.