After years of resistance, Joni Mitchell has finally yielded to her record company's desire to put out a best-of compilation albeit in her inimitable iconoclastic fashion. These two new releases separately collect her best known songs ("Hits") and the more experimental stuff ("Misses") that Mitchell apparently believes should have gotten more airplay. The result is a fascinating but frustratingly incomplete retrospective of the greatest confessional singer-songwriter of our time.
"Hits" is the sprightlier package, featuring Mitchell at her hippie-chick finest. Her crystalline soprano is achingly fresh (was anyone
ever this young?), yet on tracks like "Urge for Going," "Both Sides, Now" and, especially, "The Circle Game," her shimmering, sensual lyrics bespeak a precocious wisdom.
Mitchell oversaw the sequencing of tracks on both discs and, on "Hits," her seguing of "Woodstock," with its yearning to "get ourselves back to the
garden," into "The Circle Game," in which she imagines a baby boy's life unfolding with astonishing clarity, evokes the wistful respect for time's sweep and power that's become one of her recurring themes. Some of her other themes choices and their consequences, the pull between
freedom and romantic stability and musical motifs, particularly her calling upon snippets from '50s pop songs, become even more apparent in Mitchell's track arrangements. By the time you're through with "Hits," you feel a renewed admiration for what Mitchell has dared to put on record the deepest, truest experiences of being female, of being alive.
The unfortunately titled "Misses" (not exactly a selling point) comprises some of Mitchell's more difficult and challenging work, like the sound collage "The Beat of Black Wings" (from "Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm"), the minimalist avant-garde jazz of "The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey" (from "Mingus") and the title track of "Hejira," the mellow jazz pop screeds against suburbia ("Harry's House"/"Centerpiece," from "The Hissing of Summer Lawns") and millennial Los Angeles ("Sex Kills," from "Turbulent Indigo"). This is dense, often haunting stuff, but as a collection, it feels weighed down by self-importance.
Ironically, the one track on "Misses" that flat-out blows you away is the simplest, "A Case of You" from "Blue." On "A Case of You" (featuring only Mitchell on dulcimer and then-paramour James Taylor on guitar), Mitchell strips love down to its essences, both bodily and spiritual; she mixes sex, addiction and religious ecstasy, blood and holy wine. This is the song that Joni-worshipper Prince hears in his head every time he goes into the studio; Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Bono are also in its debt. Yet Mitchell considers "A Case of You" a miss? (Other quibbles with the artist's song selection: No "Just Like This Train" or "Same Situation," no "In France They Kiss on Main Street," no "Coyote," no "That Song About the Midway," no "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire.")
The perfect way to listen to "Hits" and "Misses" would be on shuffle play, mixing up the brightness with the clouds. Even better would be for Mitchell to give in and authorize an all-inclusive, chronologically ordered boxed set. Then we could hear the natural progression of her artistry and
sensibilities, as well as the subtle tricks time has played with her voice, from the purity of her 1968 debut to the cigarette-honed rasp of 1994's
"Turbulent Indigo." As is, "Hits" and "Misses" leaves you feeling like you've heard Mitchell from both sides, now, and still, somehow...