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Both Sides Now

Most springs, there is a new record that seizes me like an illness and stamps itself upon all the local memories, even slightly prior ones. For a while, this year, I thought it might be the new Steely Dan album, or possibly the now hugely famous Santana release, ‘Supernatural,’ sales of which prove that Boomers rule. But within twenty-four hours of acquiring Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ I listened to it six or seven times all the way through.

Sung in Mitchell’s much lower current voice against a ruminating bank of strings that evokes all the shimmering uncertainty implicit in the lyrics, the title song has traded in its original sunlit wistfulness for a concentrated resignation that has all the haunting force of a majestic culinary reduction. It’s the last song in cycle of love songs - only one other of them by Mitchell herself - that traces the arc of an affair from flirtation through disillusion and mock-heartbreak to, well, ‘Both Sides Now’: “I really don’t know life at all.” The idea of a song-sequence is hardly new for Mitchell; two of my favorites among her albums, ‘The Hissing of Summer Lawns’ and, even more palpably, ‘Hejira,’ are no less song cycles than Die Schöne Müllerin. What’s new about ‘Both Sides Now’ is the roster of Billie Holiday-accented chestnuts transformed by ambitious and, I can only say, learned orchestral arrangements that pick up where Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins (and Jackie Gleason!) left off. Riddle and Jenkins both worked with pop-rock stars at the end of their careers, Riddle, famously, with Linda Ronstadt, and Jenkins, even more engagingly, with Harry Nilsson, so the sound of Joni Mitchell’s new CD is not altogether new. What’s new is its bold sophistication. The orchestra here is no more in the background than it is in Strauss’s concert-hall version of ‘Cäcilie.’ Each chart has been scored with a serious composer’s attentiveness to variety and detail. I haven’t heard of Vince Mendoza, the arranger and conductor, before, but I will certainly watch for him after this.

The oldest item in my collection that speaks the new album’s idiom is the rerelease of ‘Charlie Parker With Strings,’ a controversial series of recordings made between 1947 and 1952 under the direction of Verve founder Norman Granz. (It’s almost impossible to find out who wrote the charts, but both Gil Evans and Joe Lipman are mentioned in the notes.) Times critic Ben Ratliff described the idiom, in a review last summer of a concert that attempted to recreate Parker’s performances, as “surreally dated, with busy string-section pizzicatos adding frostings of Hollywood romance.” Mendoza has avoided the pizzicatos (I think), but his arrangements incorporate many of the glossy string figures and blue chords that ornamented the television ‘spectaculars’ of my childhood - or so it seems. The attempt to give massive string sections a role in big-band jazz met with immediate scorn and contempt because the producers who commissioned its were too nakedly in pursuit of a very dubious ‘class.’ Mendoza takes his orchestra too seriously for pretension. He knows what he’s doing: while I’m reminded that these figures - it would be wrong to call them clichés - sounded tacky then, I’m aware that they don’t sound tacky now.

‘Both Sides Now’ is sumptuously and smolderingly moody. Even the opening number, ‘You’re My Thrill,’ which according to the program ought to strike an upbeat note, proceeds at a grave pace and is shot through with doubts - there’s even a rising trill in the violins that’s more than a little reminiscent of Bernard Hermann’s titles music for ‘Vertigo.’ ‘At Last’ is even more subdued: if this is the beginning of something new, it’s very, very far from the first of its kind. An instrument that I can’t identify – perhaps it’s just a piano - taps out a six-to-the-bar one-note ostinato that would be right out of Henry Mancini’s ‘A Summer Place’ if it weren’t so monitory and if what goes on around it weren’t so varied. ‘Comes Love’ revives a motif from Duke Ellington’s ‘The New East St. Louis Toodle-oo,’ only to develop it as Gil Evans might have done for Miles Davis’s ‘Sketches of Spain.’ ‘You’ve Changed’ explores the terrain of movie-score drama with a yearning regret that in its quieter passages sounds eerily close to Mahler, at least until Wayne Shorter introduces smoky tenor sax riffs. Here, as in the opening song, Mitchell seems to bring the late Billie Holiday back to life, right down to her unsteady mumbling. ‘Answer Me, My Love,’ a German song from 1953 that could pass for Brahms - no blue notes here! - begins with a gorgeously unfolding horn chorale. The sophistication of this straightforward prayer lies largely in the suppleness with which steps from bar to bar without slipping into schmalz.

The sixth cut brings us a song of Mitchell’s own, ‘A Case of You,’ which first appeared on record in 1971’s ‘Blue,’ popping up again, in Mitchell’s 1974 concert album, ‘Miles of Aisles.’ In both of these roughly identical performances, Mitchell is accompanied dotted chords on simply strummed acoustic guitars (James Taylor plays one on ‘Blue’), and at the second and third statements of the title line her light voice flies off into the distinctive yodeling that sometimes, in those days, verged on self-parody. Listening to the earlier versions after hearing what Mitchell and Mendoza do with it on ‘Both Sides Now’ is like watching a little girl play dress-up. Insofar as they’re convincing, they’re palpably precocious, rattling off a wisdom and a passion that take decades to mature. Mitchell has lived those decades now, and she turns what was a souvenir to one lost love into a meditation on the  bittersweet fact that love can be mislaid without being lost at all. Those early flourishes into the upper register yield here to rapt reiterations that long, without begging, for another go. 

The stylistic gap between ‘A Case of You’ and the following song, ‘Don’t Go To Strangers,’ written by three people I’ve never heard of in 1954, is easily the widest on ‘Both Sides Now.’ Featuring Mark Isham’s muted trumpet, ‘Strangers’ makes the album’s most consciously ‘period’ effects, and is very easily imagined drifting out of a boothside juke-box fifty years ago. Next, Mendoza takes Vincent Youmans’s 1925 ‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ and gives it enough razzmatazz to put Frank Sinatra in the mood; Mitchell, accordingly, sounds a little like Keely Smith. All it takes for ‘Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me’ is to turn down the preceding number’s stringless backup to candlelight level. ‘Stormy Weather’ opens with an ominous figure in the horns and trombones that’s set in what seems, even before the song gets going, to be a very remote key – as remote from the Harold Arlen classic as a dire bit of Wagner – but the moment Mitchell comes in, it opens up to a full-strings-ahead lushness that’s all Gordon Jenkins. Mitchell sings ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ with a gleeful laugh in her voice, and the syncopated chart, with help from Herbie Hancock, recalls the sparkling drollery of romantic comedies set in early-sixties New York.

After all of this, ‘Both Sides Now’ is staggeringly nostalgic, helplessly ironizing the precocious wisdom of the lyrics: what could any of us have known about life and love when this song first hit the radio? (May 2000)

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