Challenging and endlessly creative, it’s as brilliant an album as almost anything else in her rich catalog.
When it was originally released, Travelogue was supposed to be Joni Mitchell’s valedictory statement on a career that spanned more than 40 years. While she broke this briefly in 2007 with Shine, the 2002 album largely stands as her swan song. And what a monumental achievement it is. Rather than releasing all new material, the album functions as a musical autobiography, culling from her impressive catalog and recasting each title in a new, more mature image. Even those intimately familiar with Mitchell’s oeuvre will find themselves pleasantly surprised with a set that comes off not as stale retreads, but vital new compositions that bear the faintest hallmarks of familiarity.
Although her once-astounding vocal range has been significantly shrunken over time, she still shows off a nimble instrument with a fondness for the sound and feel of the English language. Yet unlike the prototypical singer-songwriter, Mitchell’s music has always been just as important as the lyrics. In this, she is a holistic songwriter in the truest sense, putting her efforts into the whole of the composition rather than having one serve the other. It’s a complex and demanding approach and makes Travelogue, at over two hours, a challenging listen. But when parsed out, it affords the listener innumerable aural gems. It’s as impressive an outing as any artist could ever hope for and shows her going out on an unimpeachably high note.
In addition, Travelogue shows the malleability of Mitchell’s work and her astounding abilities as an interpreter. Despite the several decades over which this material was first composed, her approach possesses an aesthetic coherence that isn’t a given in her back catalog. Here she takes songs both well-known (“Woodstock,” “The Circle Game”) and obscure (“God Must Be a Boogie Man,” “Amelia”) and recasts them in a sound augmented by lush orchestral accompaniment and a rejuvenating return to jazz, the latter with the help of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.
It’s not necessarily a career retrospective (there are some albums under- and even unrepresented) as it is a career summation, one that allows Mitchell to revisit songs going all the way back to her debut and lending them an older, wiser interpretation made all the more affecting by her cigarette-stained vocals. Proving herself still very strong of voice, she more often than not vocally resembles fellow Canadian Diana Krall in her sultry alto and matter-of-fact reads of lyrics and melody.
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is given a wild, modern big band and orchestral overhaul that lends it an insistent urgency and allows Mitchell a few moments of vocal improv that rises and falls along with the arrangement rather than struggling to compete. Here it sounds nothing like the low-key, folkier version found on Night Ride Home, having been converted into something far grander, far more impactful. With its sharp dynamic contrasts and orchestral stabs, the song barely resembles its original incarnation, making it a surprising highlight on an album chock full of them.
Composed like a sort of autobiographical symphony, Travelogue plays more as a cohesive whole than a series of individual tracks, this despite the need for listeners to take a breather now and then given the demanding nature of the program. Each song seems to flow into the next, making a transition like “The Sire of Sorrow” from 1994’s Turbulent Indigo to “For the Roses” from the 1972 album of the same name sound utterly seamless despite the drastic stylistic and artistic differences between the two albums.
“God Must Be a Boogie Man,” always an underrated gem on the equally underrated Mingus, here takes on the guise of a gently swinging big band number performed at a smoky after-hours club. Shorter’s inimitable soprano saxophone work functions as a complimentary voice that then breaks off into a gorgeously fragile solo that shows in equal parts his virtuosity and melodicism on the instrument. By contrast, “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is given a chamber orchestra makeover that renders the song virtually unrecognizable, save the lyrics. Similarly, closing track “The Circle Game” forgoes familiarity in favor of something more impressionistic and expressive. It’s this latter quality that makes Travelogue such a fascinating album, one that manages to perfectly encapsulate the genius of Joni Mitchell by completely avoiding that with which she is most closely associated. Challenging and endlessly creative, it’s as brilliant an album as almost anything else in her rich catalog.