Both Sides Now was a worthy and welcome bit of excess from a legend who always seemed to be getting her due a decade late.
On this concept album that for the most part uses other people’s lyrics and music, it feels like Joni Mitchell isn’t giving herself enough credit. Even when her compositional chops wavered into smooth jazz cheese, her lyrical work was sharp as steel. But an icon is allowed some indulgence. And though Both Sides Now is indulgence personified (massive orchestra, re-covering your own songs, concept album) it still delivered some of Mitchell’s best late-career work.
Released around Valentine’s Day, the limited run even came in chocolate box style packaging. But these were some bitter sweets to receive. Mitchell runs through ten jazz covers and recontextualizes two of her old hits in a more orchestral tone. The concept on display is a typical one for Mitchell, soft flirtations with a new flame, fantastic courtship, a sparking relationship, fights, depression, alcohol, tears. Still, the orchestra jazz on display is more robust and cozy than the wafer thin backgrounds of her ‘90s output. Her smoky voice, by this point, has fully transformed into a lounge singer coo, years of cigarette smoke being expelled along with the sobs stuck in her throat. Now playing with a large ensemble, there’s nothing to complain about on the sonic end. The mix is film score-worthy, the swaying and swooning woodwinds perfectly accent Mitchell’s declarations of lost love.
These might not be her words, but they still stick like a knife in the gut. The Rodgers and Hart-penned “I Wish I Were in Love Again” has a jaunty swing. The famed Sinatra version is a lovely piece of heartbreak, delivered with a wink and a smile; however, Mitchell attempts to get to that sunny disposition but just can’t cut it. Even when she speak-sings “I wish I were punch drunk” she quickly falls back down into despair. In context of the album’s concept, along with her own back catalog, it’s a harsh admission that the constant search for love is what’s driving her to tears. She’s been documenting for decades what the struggles of love have done to her, breaking her down, remaking her, convincing her she’s worthless, only to tempt her with another rush of endorphins. And, of course, she accepts every time, never learning.
It’s particularly brutal as it’s followed by the title track. Once one of Mitchell’s peppier songs, “Both Sides Now” evolves into a much more mature, somber affair about the limitations on love placed by deeply flawed humans. Though it’s been rerecorded by hundreds of artists, ascending to the overcovered echelon of “Yesterday,” nothing hits like hearing both of Mitchell’s versions. It’s a tender admission that things don’t get better as you get older, you just get used to the troughs and don’t expect as much from the peaks.
Both Sides Now snatched two Grammys, for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist. Not that those categories are traditionally stacked, but it felt like a placation for her never winning a best album of any sort during her ‘70s heyday. This would be further emphasized in 2008, when Herbie Handcock’s River: The Joni Letters won record of the year over Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, perpetuating the Grammy’s tendency to award winners based on past merit rather than current excellence. But Both Sides Now was a worthy and welcome bit of excess from a legend who always seemed to be getting her due a decade late.