Was it possible? Could the tall blond under the Madison Square Garden spots be responsible for unleashing Jewel, Sarah, Paula, Alanis, Shawn, and a couple of Natalies on us? Funny, she didn’t look cruel. She actually looked pleasant, not at all the soured sibyl who sulks through interviews, grousing about whiny white kids and her pantheon niche. Speaking briefly between songs and graciously accepting applause, she betrayed none of the wounded grandeur of one who painted herself as the earless Van Gogh for an album cover. She played chummy with a band that included her ex-husband, bassist Larry Klein. She even honored top-billed Bob Dylan by mimicking his phrasing for a verse of her ecological anthem.
For that matter, Joni Mitchell’s decorum November 1 wasn’t so very different from the title and mood of her new Taming the Tiger. Saskatoon, we have a problem: contentment, spreading its sly placation. Sure, the album has vitriol— toward lawyers and military callousness in the Japanese rape case, or that ever-reliable Great Satan, the biz. But when Mitchell intends to be angry she ends up sounding perturbed. Where’s the outrage? Her reunion with the daughter she gave up for adoption over 30 years ago has brought a sense of belonging (and a five-year-old grandson) that seems to have not only given pause to a staunch serial monogamist but also blunted her passion’s urgency. On the new record, when she starts a song shrieking “Kiss my ass,” the effect is nowhere near as startling as the gentle intrusion of “fuck your strangers” into 1972’s haunting “Woman of Heart and Mind.” As Mitchell forgot long ago, odd chording or dense arrangements do not automatically result in toughness and sophistication. You can get remarkable mileage from just solo voice, acoustic guitar, and a soul full of fury.
At the Garden, Mitchell avoided everything preceding 1974’s jazzy renaissance, Court and Spark, except for two worn Earthshoes from Ladies of the Canyon, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock.” What infuriates her now is her inability to elude the long shadow cast by her early albums, especially the back-to-back hippie twilight masterworks, Blue and For the Roses. I understand wanting to forget emotional misery, especially if James Taylor’s to blame. Yet Blue and For the Roses remain remarkable for the way boy-dumps-girl becomes a ravishingly detailed journey into and back from heartbreak, with a parallel subtext of even deeper sorrow: the slow estrangement from a generation’s utopian ideals.
Taming the Tiger certainly displays Mitchell’s trademark sharp observations and sure sense of melody. However the issue, again, is not that Joni hasn’t changed with the times, but that she has. Acoustic guitar and piano are replaced by overly grand, knee-jerk electronica. Having lost its crystal upper register, her voice parades a rich, dusky timbre through scat maneuvers. Sometimes this works. Were their rococo production swells trimmed back, cuts like “Man From Mars” and “The Crazy Cries of Love” could elbow into the territory Anita Baker left unattended. At other points, Taming the Tiger‘s themes recall the past at the present’s expense. The Yuletide numbness on “Face Lift” can’t touch the regret suffusing Blue‘s ineffable “River.” Likewise, the title cut’s denunciation of current pop culture was more powerful on “For the Roses,” with the chain association of rustling arbutus, press parties, and gowned women evoking the distance between bloated corporate rock and its back-to-nature clientele. In 1998, saying corporate pop sucks is the equivalent of calling water wet.
For someone so dismissive of the contemporary scene, Mitchell seems oddly bent on keeping history at arm’s length. When she ended her Garden set with “Woodstock,” I hoped for a fond elegy spiked with admonition. No way. She gave a matter-of-fact rendering, as though any wisp of feeling might associate her with the spacey hippie chicks parodied by sitcoms. Come on, Joni. Flowers are better than bullets, and with the right genius, dulcimers can blow away a Roland
VG-8 any old time.