Hi all. I should be in Barcelona right now, but owing to a rather nasty ear infection that dogged me all last week and hasn’t completely gone away yet, I thought it better not to risk flying; it tends to play havoc with my ears at the best of times. So since I’m here, here’s a little bonus post.
Joni Mitchell is high up on the list of my push-comes-to-shove favourite artists. But my appreciation of her music is based principally on the run of albums starting with Blue and ending with (but including) Mingus. There’s much good work to be found outside this period (the only time I’ve written about her on this blog before, I wrote about a song called Tin Angel from her 1969 album Clouds), but 1971-79 is where the most of the classics reside.
Wild Things Run Fast falls outside her great period. It’s the first studio album she made after Mingus, the first after signing to Geffen. It’s an album of variable quality, almost inconceivably bland at its worst. The mix of legit jazz players (Victor Feldman, Wayne Shorter) and LA session men (Steve Lukather, Michael Landau), intriguing on paper, instead seemed to bring out the most pedestrian aspects of both factions, making the album’s title the more unfortunate.
The record does, however, start with a wonderful song, a bona fide Joni Mitchell classic, and maybe the best thing she wrote in the whole of the 1980s: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.
Interpolating an old song in a new song is a trick Mitchell had pulled off before, on Harry’s House/Centerpiece, an astonishing track from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In that instance, the insertion of a romantic swing tune in such an unsparing portrait of a crumbling marriage signified the emotional distance travelled by Harry and his wife from the optimistic (1950s) beginnings of their affair to the (1970s) endgame of a marriage grown empty, in which love and optimism had been replaced by work and the accumulation of things. An irresistible but bitterly ironic musical joke, it’s the greatest coup on an album full of them.
Inserting Unchained Melody into her own Chinese Café, Mitchell repeats the trick to more straightforwardly poignant effect. Initially just quoting the song’s opening line within the chorus (“We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ one more time”), she ends the track by singing a whole verse and chorus, with a few canny melody adjustments and reharmonisings. As in Harry’s House/Centerpiece, the older song stands for youth, for optimism, for the “birth of rock’n’roll days” that are referred to in the first stanza, so different from the life the narrator finds herself living now.
In 1982, Mitchell was 39 and given that the song’s narrator refers to bearing a child but not raising her, it’s probably not presumptuous to assume Mitchell was singing about herself. Which makes Chinese Café, like Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon from a year later, one of the great backward-looking, stock-taking songs of middle age, a style of song not too well served by rock music on the whole. Akin to Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter musically, but departing from the long-stanza, third-person reportage of her writing on those albums in favour of a simpler, near-the-knuckle style, Chinese Café stands comparison with her very best work.