Joni Mitchell's 10 Most Underrated Songs: Critic's Picks
Happy 75th birthday to Joni Mitchell, the prickly, meticulous singer/songwriter whose work has spanned rock, jazz, pop and electronic music for five decades. Since her debut album, 1968’s Songs for a Seagull, her sleeper tracks and gonzo experiments have always been just as crucial as the hits.
Mitchell began as an archetypal coffeehouse songwriter at 19, singing in nightclubs and on street corners. But from the jump, there was nothing cookie-cutter about her material. On her early compositions like “Chelsea Morning,” “Woodstock” and “The Circle Game,” she wrote with astonishing detail and emotional candor. And whereas your typical folk singer might fingerpick a few workmanlike chords as a vessel for his or her lyrics, Mitchell played dazzling guitar, piano and dulcimer -- heavy on alternate tunings and obscure voicings.
Her first break came in 1967, when David Crosby was “knocked on his ass” by her performance at a Miami club called the Coconut Grove. The two absconded to Los Angeles; he’d be her producer, biggest booster, and, briefly, her boyfriend. But no one in the 1960s rock scene could have foreseen Mitchell’s creative future, one that wouldn’t be defined by her time, place or relative youth.
Mitchell’s subsequent work as a writer, guitarist and producer would put her toe-to-toe with all of her peers. Her early ‘70s run of albums, including 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, 1971’s Blue and 1974’s Court and Spark, established her as a major talent who combined lavish guitar work with heart-on-sleeve lyrical detail. But Mitchell would not be painted into a corner as a weepy oversharer.
“People started calling me confessional, and then it was like a blood sport,” she grouses in her David Yaffe-penned biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. “I felt like people were coming to watch me fall off a tightrope or something.”
A synthesist and seeker by nature, Mitchell redefined her own parameters again and again. 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns threw out any remaining girl-with-a-guitar connotations in favor of Burundi drummers and Moog synths. 1976’s Hejira was a wrenching travelogue with an ethereal, singular vibe. And her later, more textural work like 1991’s Night Ride Home and 1998’s Taming the Tiger amped up the mood and atmosphere like never before.
Despite, or because of, Mitchell’s constant reinventions, large swaths of her work have slipped between the cracks. But those deep cuts, supposed commercial disasters or wild leaps of faith are just as important to the story. Here are her 10 most unsung gems.
“The Gallery” (from Clouds, 1969)
In 1967, Mitchell briefly romanced fellow Canadian songwriter and legendary lothario Leonard Cohen; it’s hard to imagine a dull moment between those two. And the relationship’s last days were captured forever on her deep cut “The Gallery.”
Mitchell took the opportunity to skewer the ladies’ man, wryly noting his paintings of women in a room lousy with love letters: “I see now it’s Josephine / Who cannot live without you.” In Malka Marom’s Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, Joni explained how she was writing in response to Cohen’s “Master Song,” which had an uncharitable line about a woman’s thighs: “I countered it with thinking of the pleasure I’m gonna have watching your hairline recede.”
“Electricity” (from For The Roses, 1972)
On the page, this overshadowed cut from For the Roses could be accused of taking its metaphor for a love affair off the deep end. Mitchell details matters of the heart with language of wires, sparks and blown fuses; she even nicknames the couple Minus and Plus. But the song succeeds on its appealing bossa nova flair and Mitchell’s supple delivery; it sweeps you along with its riff on emotional circuitry. It’s a song for any frustrated partner unable to navigate love’s technical manual.
“The Boho Dance” (from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975)
Mitchell went more challenging and satirical than ever before on 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, an album full of portraits of hipsters and bohemians. Of the whole bunch, “The Boho Dance” perhaps cuts closest to the bone. It details Mitchell’s bad night out somewhere called the “Boho zone,” where she came “looking for some sweet inspiration.”
Instead, she’s stuck with a bunch of shabby-chic schmoozers, soundtracked by a “hard-time band with Negro affectations.” Best of all is how Mitchell scans the room like a documentarian: “A camera pans the cocktail hour,” she sings, only to find a faux-Parisian scenester “with runs in her nylons.” Most have ended up at some pretentious scene like this at one time or another, but nobody could nail every detail like Mitchell.
“Talk to Me” (from Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, 1977)
After her peak atmospheric work with 1976’s Hejira, Mitchell tried to go bigger and more conceptual the following year with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Instead of raising the stakes even higher, it hasn’t aged well; it’s mostly tedious and overlong, with a highly questionable sleeve featuring Mitchell in blackface.
That said, “Talk to Me” kicks off the album with curiosity and zest for life. The song is allegedly about Bob Dylan; the two performed together during the rowdy, communal Rolling Thunder Revue tour circa 1975-76. Mitchell seems to want him to lighten up and join the party: “You spend every sentence as it was marked currency / I’m always talking / Chicken squawking!” She cracks up in a flurry of chicken noises. Dylan may have been no fun on this run of concerts, but Mitchell’s having the time of her life.
“A Chair in the Sky” (from Mingus, 1979)
Mitchell started working on a collaborative album with Charles Mingus in the late ‘70s; the former was thick into her “jazz” phase, the latter in the final months of his life. The notoriously volatile double-bassist had written four tunes for Mitchell to lay her lyrics and vocals over, including the existential “A Chair in the Sky.”
When Mingus died midway through the production, this lopsided jam ended up sounding like his eulogy. It’s mostly just electric pianist Herbie Hancock and fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius sending strange, ringing notes through the air, as Mitchell appraises an entire life: “In these daydreams of rebirth / I see myself in style / Raking in what I’m worth.”
Even in his absence, The Angry Man of Jazz seems colossally present in these words, looming over Manhattan, blocking out the sun.
“Moon at the Window” (from Wild Things Run Fast, 1982)
After an uncanny winning streak from 1968 to 1979, Mitchell hit diminishing returns with her 1982 album Wild Things Run Fast. It’s split about 50/50 between jazzy gems and new-wave flat tires. “Moon at the Window” is on the right side of history; the lyrics are quixotic, the recording enveloping and luminous. Her then-husband, Larry Klein, is the MVP here, wrapping every Mitchellian observation (“It takes cheerful resignation / Heart and humility / That’s all it takes”) in a reassuring purr from his fretless bass.
Meanwhile, Mitchell’s backing vocals and Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone hang in the air together like mist. It’s worth sifting through the somewhat hokey Wild Things Run Fast to luxuriate in “Moon at the Window.”
“The Beat of Black Wings” (from Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, 1988)
Filled with pointless guest appearances from Willie Nelson, Don Henley and Billy Idol and full of garish ‘80s effects, 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm is not an easy listen. And if Mitchell’s had an acid tongue before, by 1988, she’d reached a Don Rickles level of sardonic, mordant negativity. On “The Beat of Black Wings,” these aspects combine for a devilish thrill. Mitchell introduces us to a PTSD-afflicted soldier named Killer Kyle: “Propaganda, piss on ‘em / There’s a war zone inside me / I can’t even hear the f---ing music playing,” he rants.
Instead of solemn minor chords to illustrate Kyle’s plight, the backing music is an absurd R&B coffeehouse groove. In spite of itself, “The Beat of Black Wings” portrays a singular mood; it doesn’t get more bone-dry than this.
“Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free) (from Night Ride Home, 1991)
After a rough 1980s, Mitchell thankfully spent the following decade returning to ambient, immersive productions. 1991’s Night Ride Home, in particular, conjures a sound-world of deep blues and inky blacks; its most potent song, “Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)” almost sounds conjured from a plume of smoke.
Lyrically, Mitchell juxtaposes Gospel accounts (“Who in the world can this heart-healer be / This magical physician?”) with pollution scenarios (“Enter the multitudes / In Exxon blue / And radiation rose”). Is she just describing the masses’ garments, or flipping environmental destruction into a modern parable? Like any mystical text worth its salt, “Passion Play” defies literal interpretation, but groans with archetypal significance.
“Borderline” (from Turbulent Indigo, 1993)
Somehow, the beautiful Night Ride Home wasn’t Mitchell’s commercial comeback, but its follow-up, Turbulent Indigo, was. While it has a similarly appealing folk-jazz sound, her lyrics became humorless and hectoring. Finger-wagging songs like “Sex Kills” and “The Magdalene Laundries” call for social upheaval, but only inspire eye-rolls, like a pious Twitter feed begging to be muted.
The lovely “Borderline” fares much better; instead of lashing out, Mitchell examines the arbitrary fences we build between each other. “Why are you smirking at your friend?” she asks. “Is this to be the night / When all well-wishing ends?” If Mitchell could have taken her own advice on the rest of Turbulent Indigo, so can we in a divisive, mistrustful 2018.
“Bad Dreams” (from Shine, 2007)
Whether due to its release on Starbucks’ Hear! Music label or its ill-advised rerecording of “Big Yellow Taxi,” it’s easy for fans to overlook Mitchell’s could-be final album, 2007’s Shine. Really, its predecessor, Taming the Tiger, is the golden goose of underrated Joni material; its lack of representation here is simply because it must be heard as a whole.
That said, Shine is a fine, fitting farewell to an artist who seems to be firmly done with the music business, which she always despised or decried. Its best song, “Bad Dreams,” is a tear-jerker, written around a quote from Mitchell’s 3-year-old grandson: “Bad dreams are good / In the great plan.” She considers the Garden of Eden as opposed to our modern world, where “these lesions once were lakes.” Movingly, the song’s final lines accept reality for what it is (“Who will come to save the day? / Mighty Mouse? Superman?”) rather than what she wishes it could be.
Near the end of a career spent probing the human condition in song, Mitchell connected with higher, more elemental truths. You’ll hear it in the usual hits, sure, but also in the spaces between.