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Turbulent Indigo (Reprise)
By Bob Bahr
Joni Mitchell writes, sings and plays on a different level of ability than 90% of the musicians in the world. She is NBA material, a Dream Team candidate. She wears a black belt in songwriting, five stars on her shoulder for guitar playing and the adulation of millions of women and men on her sage's robe.
And on Turbulent Indigo, she doesn't slip a bit. But she doesn't gain much more ground either.
Meditative, polished and economical in its arrangements, Mitchell's ten new songs hang over the room a good long time, like the smell of a rich, exotic meal. Atmospheric keyboard parts and deep, sustained bass notes give a smooth, legato feel and Wayne Shorter puts his indelible soprano sax mark on half the cuts. With bassist / love interest / co-producer Larry Klein taking a bite out of the Jaco Pastorious handbook, Turbulent Indigo sounds a bit like a throwback to Mitchell's mid-1970s jazz era. To these ears, that is good news.
Unfortunately, Mitchell now has to face receding vocal skills, a product of advancing years and a longtime, heavy smoking habit. It doesn't spoil the effectiveness of any of the songs, but the composer of the touchstone tune "Woodstock" may have to adjust for her new vocal range in the near future.
Her guitar playing remains vital, pungent and skillful. The rest of her band is fully up to the task of executing Mitchell's ideas and the production is absolutely top-notch. And when Mitchell picks up the songwriting quill, she starts out with a vast advantage over most composers. Three songs from Turbulent Indigo immediately stand out as exceptional pieces: the epic-like "The Sire of Sorrow (Job' s Sad Song)," the bouncy, biting "Yvette in English" and the iconoclastic "Last Chance Lost."
The second tier of songs consists of terse vignettes — the dark loneliness sketched in "Sunny Sunday," the spoiling sexual heat of "How Do You Stop," the wretched spousal abuse of "Not to Blame" and the caustic attack on opinionated blowhards in "Borderline" — which come and go quickly and sweetly. "Doctors' pills give you brand new ills/And the bills bury you like an avalanche/And lawyers haven't been this popular/Since Robespierre slaughtered half of France!" Mitchell sings in the slightly heavy-handed "Sex Kills." If the listener doesn't let that go immediately, it will fade from memory soon enough when Mitchell gets sharp again on the next verse. She is never long from greatness.
If a dominant theme can be discerned from Turbulent Indigo's dark tunes, it is that men are usually pigs. They rape, abandon love, persecute sexually active women and abuse wives. But Mitchell also takes aim at nuns in "The Magdalene Latmdries" and accepts half the guilt in "Last Chance Lost" and "How Do You Stop." Mankind as a whole takes the rap in "The Sire of Sorrow," and "Yvette in English" alludes to the sexual traps of a "wary little stray" wearing high heels. There' s plenty of guilt to go around.
The desperation of being a tortured artists is palpable on Turbulent Indigo. The title track is about Vincent Van Gogh, a painter who worked using turbulent paint strokes, a blue-mooded man unappreciated in his time. Now his paintings hang in opulent homes where he would have been unwelcome in his time. Mitchell has him pissing in their fireplaces.
The Van Gogh connection continues with the cover art that is painted by Mitchell. It is herself, with one ear bandaged in the same pose as one of Van Gogh's famous self-portraits. Inside the CD's handsome packaging are more Mitchell paintings that mirror the style of Van Gogh. It's a bit much, but we're here to listen to music, not consider psyches. And even in the weaker songs of Turbulent Indigo, Joni Mitchell displays an awesome talent for music.