Joni Mitchell: The Beginning of Survival
Sound/Style: Imaginative fusion of pop, rock and jazz. Heavy on electronics and socio-political commentary. Contains strong obscenities and mature subject matter.
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- The endearing giggle that closes Joni Mitchell’s classic “Big Yellow Taxi” may be one of her most memorable recorded moments. Along with breezy airplay staples like “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio” and “Raised On Robbery,” that lighthearted laugh may lead casual listeners to the erroneous impression that Mitchell’s work is primarily drawn from a happy-go-lucky heart. Her early work, rife with lovelorn sentiments and astute observations, evolved into edgier, jazz-influenced material that confirmed her prowess as a lyricist of substance. In particular, though, it was Mitchell’s post-commercial period – her Geffen Records output between 1984 and 1998 – that revealed her deepening concern and discontent with U.S. and world affairs. Those who best remember Mitchell as a heart-on-sleeve idealist and friendly folkie will scarcely recognize her on The Beginning Of Survival, a compilation of music from her Geffen albums. Though now retired, Mitchell is still making heady statements with her work. Here, she pointedly rearranges past recordings into a hard-hitting as well as fresh-sounding commentary on a world in decline. The CD’s title comes from Chief Seattle’s mid-1800s letter to the then-president, a plea for environmental integrity that chillingly foreshadowed today’s technological dominance and its resulting fallout. The entire letter appears in the CD’s foldout case, an impressive package that also features several of Mitchell’s paintings.
As one might guess, the record is bereft of whimsical moments lyrically or musically, with foreboding electronic textures and thudding drums creating a hard casing around Mitchell’s guitar and multi-tracked voices. On the disc’s first segment, she skewers mass consumerism and a media-duped majority, concluding that contemporary culture is comprised of “people looking, seeing nothing/people lusting, loving nothing/people stroking, touching nothing.” Irony abounds in sobering tracks like “The Beat Of Black Wings,” in which Mitchell uses the words of a young soldier named “Killer Kyle” to underscore the home front battlefield where unseen lives are lost: “my girl killed our unborn child without even grievin’! – she went to some clinic.” Mitchell’s tone often seems embittered and cynical, but an authentic sense of alarm is present as well, dotted with frequent exclamation points. In “Sex Kills,” she offers a panoramic sweep of cultural chaos: “Indian chiefs with their old beliefs know that the balance is undone/you can feel it out in traffic – everyone hates everyone!/the ulcerated ozone, these tumors of the skin/it’s a hostile sun beating down now on this massive mess we’re in!”
The songwriter targets “preachers preaching love like vengeance, calling for large donations,” and asks “how can he speak for the Prince of Peace when he’s hawk-right-militant and he’s immaculately tax-free?” Still, she doesn’t discount the possibility of spirituality as a source of hope. In “Passion Play,” she echoes portions of The Lord’s Prayer and paints images of Christ as a “heart healer” and “magical physician,” and ponders Him in “Impossible Dreamer” as a beautiful visionary. The song, however, stops short of claiming His victory and resurrection power, ending on a bittersweet note. On “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” she conjures up a Revelations-style beast and is found “hoping and hoping, as if by my weak faith the spirit of this world would heal and rise.” What Joni Mitchell is saying on The Beginning Of Survival is not that different from what she said decades ago about a civilization heading toward its own undoing – “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Only this time, there are no giggles to be found.
Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.