It’s no surprise that Joni Mitchell’s first venture in compiling a box set of her work would be something different. Of course, it didn’t start out that way: she originally set out to assemble one-disc’s worth of love songs and instead ended up with a four-act ballet. “What I have done here is gather some of these scenes (like a documentary filmmaker) and by juxtaposition, edit them into a whole new work,” she says in the beautifully written essay that accompanies the set, explaining how the themes in her music became more apparent the more she delved.
Called Love Has Many Faces and subtitled A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced, it makes sense that Mitchell has been re-envisioning her music as a dance. For starters, it’s always been more sophisticated and elegant than most of her peers’, but a lot of her work also has unique rhythms and structures that feel naturally transitional into some kind of graceful movement. Mitchell has flirted with ballet before, having not long ago collaborated with the Alberta Ballet Company on The Fiddle And The Drum project, and this new box set seems in many ways an extension of what she was attempting with merely a change of themes. Listening to it flow together it without a doubt does feel like it’s “waiting to be danced.”
One of the things that must have proved hugely appealing to Mitchell with The Fiddle And The Drum ballet was the opportunity to showcase her often underrated later works alongside her more beloved earlier material. She does that here too with mixed results, although it’s mostly tremendously effective. Her albums from the ’80s and ’90s in particular have often been unfairly overlooked or dismissed, and it’s actually rather nice to hear how well so many of the songs from that era hold up against the classic ’70s tracks. On the first disc (Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Days) for instance, “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” feels a natural fit between “In France They Kiss on Main Street” and “You Turn Me on I’m A Radio,” but conversely, to hear the admittedly fun but lightweight “Dancin’ Clown” followed by the so utterly moving and sublime “River,” surely one of her greatest moments, feels ever so slightly misplaced.
The second disc (The Light is Hard to Find) is much more successful at juxtaposing the old and new, the different setting giving new life to songs like “Nothing Can Be Done” and “No Apologies” (from 1991’s Night Ride Home and 1998’s Taming The Tiger, respectively). The mood of this set is more effective overall, meaning that the jazzy “Moon At The Window” and the starkly beautiful “Blue” make better bedfellows on this disc despite the years between their creation. Disc three (Love Has Many Faces), which misses out the ’80s material altogether (there’s no doubt the production from this decade sometimes overpowers the songs) is the one that would probably work the best as originally intended, as a single disc affair: it’s full of dreamy, amorous tales, and lush arrangements. The final CD (If You Want Me I’ll Be in the Bar) has a jazzier feel, starting off with “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” and eventually signing off, rather perfectly, with “My Best To You.”
Anyone looking for something completely career-spanning will be out of luck, though, as the set misses out on her first three albums, Song To A Seagull, Clouds, and Ladies of the Canyon. In a way, this does makes sense as Mitchell was only just finding her artistic voice on those first few albums, although of course, for some the absence of tracks like “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock” will be a major drawback. One of the biggest disappointments for serious Mitchell fanatics, though, will not be the few missing hits, but the fact that there is no new or unreleased material on here at all. Mitchell has said that there isn’t actually that much in the vaults anyway; she was always concise and precise-minded about her records, but even a few unheard live versions of these tracks would have been exciting to hear.
It’s true that if you own all of Mitchell’s albums, you’ll have all the material featured in this box set, but of course the main enticement is to hear these songs in a new setting and to experience Mitchell’s new vision for them. Sonically speaking, the tracks also sound better than ever, having been beautifully remastered and the packaging is as beautiful as you would expect from a painter as talented as Mitchell. Love Has Many Faces may not be a perfect overview of her career, but it certainly shows that she was so much more than just a folk singer. As an artist’s own perspective, it’s hugely effective and, like Mitchell herself, utterly fascinating throughout.
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