Turbulent Indigo maintains its distance from the more confessional strain of Mitchell’s songwriting.
If the ‘80s were a period of excess for many of the rock and folk musicians of the Baby Boomer generation, then the following decade was a period of reformation: a time when legacy artists, with a mixture of sheepishness and relief, put away their synthesizers and made music that resembled more self-conscious, mature iterations of their canonical work. Released in 1994—the same year as similarly back-to-basics projects Voodoo Lounge by the Rolling Stones and American Recordings by Johnny Cash—Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo is a textbook example of this trend. Like its lesser-known predecessor, 1991’s Night Ride Home, the album finds Mitchell stepping away from the glossy stadium-pop textures and sub-Live Aid politics of her ‘80s work in favor of something recognizably in line with her early-‘70s peak—albeit not always memorably so.
Indeed, the biggest retrospective surprise about Turbulent Indigo is that it wasn’t produced by either of the primary architects of the mid-‘90s comeback era: Don Was, who had masterminded the aforementioned Voodoo Lounge along with earlier projects by Bonnie Raitt and Glenn Frey; or Rick Rubin, who had not only spearheaded Johnny Cash’s 1994 comeback, but also Tom Petty’s Wildflowers in the same year. On the contrary, it’s another co-production with Larry Klein, Mitchell’s bassist, ex-husband and primary creative partner since 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast. Their gauzy arrangements recall the work of another of the era’s comeback auteurs, Daniel Lanois, with understated synthesizers and reverb-drenched pedal steel adding texture and atmosphere to Mitchell’s acoustic guitar and piano.
Mitchell and Klein divorced soon before Turbulent Indigo was released—a fact which, combined with the album’s evocations of Mitchell’s classic period, may spark expectations of a breakup record in the tradition of 1971’s Blue. But the lyrics are surprisingly short on explicit marital strife. Instead, Mitchell’s personal angst seeps out in more opaque form on opening track “Sunny Sunday,” a character sketch of a woman who channels her quiet desperation into a nightly ritual of shooting at a nearby streetlight with a pistol. “She always misses,” Mitchell sings mournfully, “But the day she hits/ That’s the day she’ll leave.” The jazz-inflected “Last Chance Lost,” with its references to “the tyranny of a long goodbye”, a “hero” who “cannot make the change” and a “shrew” who “will not be tamed,” feels like a more direct reference to the breakdown of Mitchell’s marriage; there may also be deeper significance in her decision to cover Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight’s “How Do You Stop,” which she invests with palpable emotion on the lines “You think love will wait/ So you don’t hold on/ And then it’s gone.” For the most part, however, Turbulent Indigo maintains its distance from the more confessional strain of Mitchell’s songwriting.
In its place is a slight return to the issues-driven subject matter of albums like 1985’s Dog Eat Dog and 1988’s Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm—though, thankfully, not to the wince-inducing degree of either of these predecessors. “Sex Kills” comes closest to feeling like a mid-‘80s hangover: both for its dramatic synth and guitar swells and for its puzzling lyrical jambalaya of ripped-from-the-headlines crises, from AIDS and sexual harassment to “the gas leaks, and the oil spills.” Elsewhere, though, Mitchell’s social commentary is focused and grounded in historical context and personal detail. On “The Magdalene Laundries,” she inhabits the sadness and rage of an “unmarried girl…/ Branded as a Jezebel” and sent to toil in a Catholic asylum for “woe-begotten-daughters”—a scenario Mitchell, who had a daughter out of wedlock in 1965 and spent much of the ‘70s enduring sexist scrutiny for her public relationships, likely found it easy to imagine herself into. Meanwhile, on the album’s title track, she responds with umbrage to the efforts of arts councils and other institutions to “make [new] van Goghs” without any understanding of artists’ often tortured lived experiences: “Oh what do you know,” she sings bitterly, “about living in Turbulent Indigo?”
Most devastating of these literary issue-songs is “Not to Blame.” Widely perceived at the time of its release as a personal attack on Jackson Browne, who was accused of domestic abuse by his ex-girlfriend Daryl Hannah in 1992, it resonates today as a much larger statement about the willingness with which society takes the word of charismatic men over the women they victimize. The song concludes, chillingly, at the funeral of one such woman: “Not one wet eye around/ Her lonely little grave/ Said, ‘He was out of line, girl/ You were not to blame.’”
It’s moments like this that elevate the album above its often-anodyne sensibility as a work of late-career maturity—at once its blessing and its curse. Critics took to Turbulent Indigo like no other Joni Mitchell record since Wild Things Run Fast; it won a Grammy Award for Pop Album of the Year, and was notably praised by Rolling Stone’s John Milward as “Mitchell’s best album since the mid-‘70s.” But like so many of her contemporaries, from Bob Dylan to Lou Reed, Mitchell traded the garish unpredictability of her ‘80s work for a slightly dull prestige. Turbulent Indigo is unquestionably a better album than Dog Eat Dog or Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm, and it’s tighter and more tuneful than Night Ride Home. But its aesthetic conservatism pales in comparison to Mitchell’s greatest work; the combination of her folk-pop melodies and Wayne Shorter’s jazz saxophone, once so singular, now feels like a pleasant but familiar stylistic formula.
And yet, as predictable as Mitchell’s craft might have become by 1994, it was still capable of inspiring awe. Turbulent Indigo closes with “The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song),” a seven-minute, seemingly allegorical epic sung from the perspective of both the Biblical figure and a Greek chorus of “antagonists,” all of whom share Mitchell’s voice. It is, in a word, astonishing: Mitchell, as she puts it, “spit[ting] out [her] bitterness/ Born of grief and nights without sleep and festering flesh,” over her own dexterous guitar chords and Shorter’s diving and thrusting sax lines. Mitchell was far from the only one of her peers who resurrected her career with a bid for adult contemporary respectability in the mid-‘90s, but she was one of the few who did so with songs as powerful and full of life as this.