Joni Mitchell’s final album of the ‘90s seemed like a demure close to the decade and her career.
Joni Mitchell’s final album of the ‘90s seemed like a demure close to the decade and her career. It would be another nine years before Mitchell would put out original music, and Taming the Tiger was made in reaction to and in the shadow of its older sister, Turbulent Indigo.
Turbulent Indigo was Mitchell’s biggest album since her ‘70s hot streak, garnering both critical and commercial acclaim. Taming the Tiger read like a coyer version of the same easy-jazz-folk. Even the album art work seemed to reflect this. While Turbulent Indigo poised Mitchell as Van Gogh’s descendant in artistic brilliance and mental troubles, Taming the Tiger was a palette swap to more cheery, conventional textures. Though it’s still as sad as ever, as is legally required from a Mitchell album.
It’s a low stakes album, and its first devastating track, “Man from Mars,” is a cool slice of condescension and lost love rather than a full heart attack. Mitchell cooing “you’ve gone too far” as a wall of wavering synths bursts into earshot is beautifully desolate. Part of this comes from the smaller backing band. The ever grand, evergreen Wayne Shorter is on the saxophone, Larry Klein holds down the bass and newcomer Brian Blade was enlisted for drums. The rest of it mostly comes down to Mitchell.
The sonics can be best related to fellow Canadian legend Leonard Cohen’s midi-influenced The Future, which came out only five years before. And in the same way as Cohen’s album Taming the Tiger is at its best when exploring pastoral splendor or getting out of its comfort zone, rather than Kenny G easiness.
“Lead Balloon” is the biggest surprise, opening with Mitchell starting a bar fight. If that doesn’t drop your jaw on the floor, nothing will. “‘Kiss my ass!’ I said and I threw my drink/ Tequila trickling down his business suit,” she shouts with glee. Outside of Shorter’s fluttering saxophone, it’s a straight forward rock track, giving Mitchell’s feminist insight and ferociousness more steel. “An angry man is just an angry man/ But an angry woman/ Bitch!” There’s a certain sense of glee in these lines, as if she’s prancing through the transgressions. “My Best to You” is on the opposite end of the spectrum, dabbling in some Vangelis silliness but giving a kooky charm to Mitchell’s comforting words.
The title track is mostly a forgettable chunk of adult contemporary, and it’s hard to tell if the guitar is a guitar or an oversaturated keyboard, but occasional waves of New Age like synths stabs flow out of nowhere giving it a surreal, wonky edge. But most of the slight touches of Enya go down predictably, washing out Shorter’s more interesting noodling and covering the sound in placid saranwrap. The second half of the album is particularly guilty of this, guitars on Valium and keyboards from an underwhelming N64 game.
Still, Mitchell’s lyrical ability was as strong as ever. Her eye for detail was second to none for decades, clearly creating disciples of Jens Lekman, Neko Case, Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan, who would eventually battle it out to take over her mantle. It’s been noted, but as the years dropped Mitchell’s voice into a smoky alto, there was a new sense of world-weary melancholy. Even “Stay in Touch,” supposedly a gem of hope in the midst of anxiety, is quietly sob-worthy. Mitchell’s found a new flame and is as giddy as she is worried about the possibilities. “So we musn’t rush/ Still, we’re burning brightly/ Clinging like fire to fuel.” “Part of this is permanent/ Part of this is passing,” she admits and it’s not hard to hear the ghosts of all the old lovers who already haunted her previous albums as she whispers “we should stay in touch.”
With her long hiatus encroaching, Taming the Tiger musically seemed like a whimper to go out on. But her words put a perfect bow on her gorgeously painful depictions of love, madness and music. “Oh, love takes so much courage/ Love takes so much shit/ He said ‘You’ve seen too many movies, Joni’” might be the best self-summery she’s ever made. For her, and everyone who entered her world, it was like the movies, every movement, every kiss, every emotion bursting in technicolor.