Sunday, August 18, 2013

“Taming The Tiger,” by Joni Mitchell


Musically, Joni Mitchell’s 1998 album, Taming The Tiger, feels ethereal and dreamy, almost formless. Reminiscent of classic albums by Pat Metheny, Brian Eno, or even Beck’s heartbreaking, 2002 album, Sea Change. Ditching catchy pop hooks and melodies for atmospherics, on Taming The Tiger, Mitchell weaves a dramatic, often mournful, and sometimes mysterious sonic tapestry. The “samey” tone of the album might make one prematurely dismissive, but that would be a mistake, as Taming The Tiger holds some of Mitchell’s most creative lyrics and striking social commentary. And the similar, sorrowful hues of the album make sense: Tiger tells the story of Joni Mitchell at that particular moment in her life: a woman in her middle age, at the top of her craft - easily producing masterworks on a backstroke, reflecting on her wondrous experiences, reveling in the joys of the present, continuing her thoughtful critique of a civilization in decline, and ultimately, strangely, miraculously feeling peaceful about the entire enterprise.

In the joyous album opener, “Harlem In Havana,” Mitchell depicts a childhood memory of visiting the African-Cuban burlesque review that some suggest to be the beginning of rock-and-roll. Mitchell’s lyrics describe the “forbidden" sights and sounds on the midway, where they played so “snakey,” you couldn’t help how you felt: “Silver spangles, See 'em dangle in the farm boy's eyes...hootchie kootchie, Auntie Ruthie would've died if she knew we were on the inside!” In “Love Puts On A New Face,” Mitchell perfectly depicts the tranquility of a quiet moment with a loved one, “No telephone ringing, no company coming, just the lap of the lake and the firelight, and the lonely loon and the crescent moon, what a pocket of heavenly grace.” Indeed. And in “The Crazy Cries Of Love,” Mitchell joyously recounts two frenzied lovers losing themselves to reckless abandon, with “No paper thin walls, no folks above, no one else can hear the crazy cries of love,” and later in the café, “…they smile ear to ear and eye to eye, ice cream is melting on a piece of pie, oh, my my…” Playful. Truthful. Tender.

Mitchell summons English poet and painter William Blake (her kindred spirit and consistent source of inspiration) in the title track, an apt summation of the music industry in the mid-1990s, as personified, no doubt, by her victorious night at the Grammys a few years earlier, collecting a surprise trophy for “Best Pop Album.” The surprise being that the album, Turbulent Indigo, sold relatively few copies that year, and none of the teenagers buying records in 1994 could have hummed even one of its tunes. Inspired by lyrics from Blake’s poem, “The Tyger,” I’ve often wondered if the song describes her experience at the award ceremony that night as she must have, no doubt, reflected upon how her latest “golden egg” compared to the music of that moment (e.g., Ace Of Base, Coolio, Crash Test Dummies, etc.): a strange juxtaposition.

Another song, I suspect, about her experiences in the dog-eat-dog music industry, “Lead Balloon,” is probably her hardest rocking song, ever. It sounds eerily similar to the well-known story of Mitchell throwing her drink into the face of Rolling Stone Svengali, Jan Wenner, in the early 1970’s, sparking a grudge between the two that lasts to this day. The notorious incident incited what some have suggested a moratorium on all things "Joni Mitchell" in his popular magazine in the 1970’s. In fact, the publication routinely berated Mitchell’s late 1970’s masterworks, which were vindicated over time and are now widely regarded as some of her very best and enduring albums (incidentally, recent Rolling Stone publications have self-consciously corrected these scathing notices).

Taming The Tiger boasts some of Mitchell’s most tender poetry, including a remake of her heartbreaking “Man From Mars,” which was originally featured on a few thousand copies of the soundtrack to the obscure 1996 film, Grace Of My Heart, which borrowed its name from Mitchell's song and presented a fictionalized version of Carole King’s early career in pop music. In it, Mitchell sings about a lost love: “I fall apart every time I think of you swallowed by the dark. There is no center to my life now, no grace in my heart. Man from Mars: this time you went too far…” The version on Tiger is updated and of a piece with the sonic palette of the rest of the album. In the tender cajoling of “Facelift,” Mitchell affectionately recalls an argument with her mother, who disapproved of her “love without a license,” and in “Stay In Touch,” Mitchell describes the excitement, doubt, and hopeful tentativeness of navigating a burgeoning relationship with her (then) new-found daughter, whom she’d given up for adoption decades earlier: “Part of this is permanent, part of this is passing, so we must be loyal and wary
 - not to give away too much, until we build a firm foundation and empty out old habits:
 old habits. Stay in touch. We should stay in touch.”

Mitchell’s sooty vocals have been the brunt of harsh criticism since the early 1990’s, with one reviewer writing of this album, “Meanwhile, her voice has lost nearly all its power: thin and breathy, restricted to the middle of her former range - I wanted to cry listening to it.” Yes, Mitchell’s voice has changed over time, as have all singers still active after many decades, but I believe this is only problematic for artists known for a distinct vocal style or range. Mitchell has never been that kind of artist. Take Whitney Houston, for example. In the 1980’s, her voice could thrill with a whisper and then soar to unfathomable heights, but by the last decade of her tragic life, her once astounding instrument sounded raspy and lacked power, as if fighting back a coughing fit on every note. Mitchell’s voice has been evolving since her earliest, cold-water vocals from the Canyon, her sultrier, jazzy singing through the 1970’s, and her beautifully smoky-voiced style of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

What I love about Mitchell’s voice today is that it’s perfectly attuned to her music and lyrics in the present. She’s no longer the flower-beaded ingénue of the 1960’s or the 1970’s darling of the Hollywood elite. She’s not only survived, but she’s thrived through decades of disposable fashion and pop music trends, creating a classification all her own. In fact, Mitchell’s seasoned voice is now even better suited for some of her classic songs from decades past (e.g., “Circle Game,” “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” etc.). Taming The Tiger received middling to favorable reviews upon release, but all rather tepid from my perspective. That was 15 years ago, and the musical climate was steeped in the “juvenile junk food” of Spice Girls, ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and even rock legend, Elton John’s awkwardly reworked (yet again) “Candle In The Wind,” performed at Princess Diana’s funeral and selling millions of copies along the way. It’s 2013, and like her late-1970’s work, I suspect Taming The Tiger will no doubt be vindicated with time, standing out as one of Mitchell's very best works.

2 comments:

  1. What a nice surprise. I love this album and I love Joni's late voice, her true alto which if you listen to her debut album is there but the soprano was there too and she went with it for a while. She recently said - I could just sing any note, it was effortless. One correction - Man from Mars is about her cat. He went missing for a few days but returned and she wrote the song.
    S

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    1. Thanks for your note, Stephen. I do notice Mitchell’s soprano on the debut. Great point. Sweet story about her cat, which gives even more clarity to the tender lyrics. Sweet story. I wonder if that’s the cat on the album’s cover. Thanks for reading and for joining the conversation.

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