Classic album: Joni Mitchell – Both Sides Now

Joni_Mitchell-Both_Sides_NowJoni Mitchell’s concept album of 2000 traces the arc of a relationship from the first flushes of romance (‘You’re My Thrill’), through uncertainty and despair (‘You’ve Changed’), to a tragic end filled with the pathos of her realisation that it all will, more than likely, happen again (‘Both Sides Now’).  Mitchell pastes together her reimagined versions of Jazz greats with two of her own tracks, (‘Both Sides Now’ and ‘Case of You’), both redefined to fit into this romance suite.

The orchestral arrangements were taken care of by Vince Mendoza, whose unquestionable talent threatens, at times, to outshine the voice of a woman so accustomed to breathily shrugging out her own, pitch-perfect poetry over folky, acoustic accompaniment.  The threat is not realised, though, as the maturity and depth with which this mammoth task is approached are testament to a career which has spanned decades.

Mitchell’s experimentation with a different sound, a different genre, at this stage in her working life demonstrates her unstinting passion for music, which extends across styles in fantastically creative ways.  ‘You’ve Changed’ (originally penned in the 1940s) is utterly heart-breaking.  The desperate sadness in Mitchell’s voice as she utters each despairing sentence over sumptuous strings reaches its peak in ‘You’ve forgotten the words “I love you”‘, left hanging by a suddenly muted orchestra.

The opening of ‘A Case of You’, judged by many to be one of Mitchell’s very best songs, is close to funereal dirge, but the hopeful approach of ascending flute undercuts the despair, reminding us of the beautiful haze through which affairs of the heart are so often viewed.  The incredible chorus is an open declaration of love, lost or otherwise:

Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet

Some were scornful of this album when it arrived, not least the ever-uninspiring NME, but accusations of self-indulgence seem misplaced for an album which lays bare so much of Mitchell’s soul, if only through her careful ordering and arrangement of each of the tracks.  Much as a curator can make or break an exhibition through their selection and presentation of the pieces on display, Mitchell proves her worth through both her choice of individual songs and her inspired decision to collaborate with Mendoza, whose music affords the entire project an epic property much akin to a magnificent musical.

This music tells a story which is so much more than the sum of its parts, and whilst not the best introduction to Mitchell’s work, it’s a clear demonstration of the phenomenal career of a woman still showing no lack of inspiration now, ten years on.

Words: Helen True

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