Home Music Joni Mitchell: The Reprise Albums (1968-1971)

Joni Mitchell: The Reprise Albums (1968-1971)

There is no bonus material on these reissues, that base having been covered by the recent Joni Mitchell Archives release, so the point of rereleasing these albums ― classics all, although not all of the same stature ― is entirely to do with remastering and lightly retouching the material within. It can be a risky (but always interesting) venture to mess with the sound of much-loved records that have stood the test of time for half a century, but The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) are less likely to divide opinion than the most recent refurbishment of the Beatles’ discography did.

The main, and really the only very obvious, beneficiary of this sonic spring cleaning is Mitchell’s 1968 debut, Song to a Seagull. Like her Laurel Canyon contemporaries James Taylor and Neil Young, Joni Mitchell was to define the sound of the early ‘70s, but of course no one knew that in 1967-68, and Song to a Seagull, released in the spring of ’68, like Neil Young and James Taylor which followed that winter, is an essentially 1960s-sounding record, with a far richer, denser feel than the classic (although equally misleading) “singer-songwriter” sound that Mitchell is to this day most known for. The context is important. Not only was the album recorded at the tail end of the Summer of Love, mere months after the release of Sgt. Pepper but the producer was none other than David Crosby, then at the troubled end of his tenure with the Byrds and very much a countercultural figure with his finger on the pulse of the music scene. So, at the time of its release, to the displeasure of Mitchell herself, Song to a Seagull was very much an artifact of the high hippie era. As such, it has always sat somewhat strangely in the company of her later work, and this version remedies that to a great extent.

The difference is immediately obvious from the opening “I Had a King” onwards. Although that song was already understated by the standards of some of the other material on the album, the effect is akin to peeling back old layers of varnish to reveal a bright and undamaged picture beneath. The vocals are much clearer and more forceful, the guitar crisp and almost tangible, and the sound is generally brighter and more open. Indeed, while the simpler songs like “Michael from Mountains” benefit from removing the swimming pool acoustics from the guitars and bringing the vocals to the fore, the musically denser ones like “Night in the City” are really transformed, the piano, bass and harmony vocals given room to breathe where before the sound was somewhat airless and smeary. The various strange vocals on the otherworldly “The Pirate of Penance” are much improved too; in fact, wherever the album is more complex, the new mix is vastly superior to the original. As an album, Song to a Seagull remains a fascinating, sporadically beautiful mixed bag rather than an absolute triumph, which is all the more mysterious since, as Joni Mitchell Archives revealed, at the time of recording the album, several songs that would go on to define her career ― the iconic “Both Sides Now” and Blue’s heartbreaking “Little Green” among them ― predate the recording of the album.

Clouds, released 14 months after Song to a Seagull and mostly produced by Mitchell herself, already sounded pretty good, so the transformation in this new edition is much less marked. Still, the album’s sometimes stark and skeletal guitar-and-vocals sound has a welcome crispness even if, listened to side by side with the last reissue, the difference is occasionally minimal. As an album, it remains a far stronger, more considered and sometimes surprisingly bleak listen, the gorgeous opener “Tin Angel” having an atmosphere that is almost Nick Drake-like in its forlorn beauty. The bright, jazzy “Chelsea Morning” meanwhile sounds much as it ever did, although the sound perhaps lends a little more depth to Mitchell’s beautiful vocal performance and especially to the backing vocals. On the paradoxically lovely but caustic “The Gallery,” there’s a real sparkle and texture to the backing vocal arrangements that feels new, and the peculiar chromatic harmonies of “Songs to Aging Children Come” are more vibrant than ever. But again, the album has been polished rather than refurbished, and if anything, it’s a reminder of just what a lovely sounding record it already was. If it has an occasional same-y quality that means it’s not quite up there with ‘70s masterpieces like Blue and For the Roses, Clouds is nevertheless a classic that preserves the vocal and guitar, “singer-songwriter” sound that is probably the Joni Mitchell of the popular imagination. Capturing an artist just as her talent really began to mature, it carries the listener triumphantly through to the closing “Both Sides, Now”― by then already a hit for Judy Collins.

Ladies of the Canyon saw the 26-year-old Mitchell beginning a new decade with her first undisputed masterpiece and a slightly more mature voice. Still more than capable of the ethereal high notes and harmonies of her early work, songs like the bright and beautiful “Morning Morgantown” found the singer employing more complex vocal lines, while on “For Free” the acoustic guitar was swapped for a piano, a sound that would increasingly define her career in the early ‘70s. The sound pallete was widened further with clarinet, flute and cello, and again, the details shine a little more brightly than before, although there isn’t a vast difference between this and previous releases. The real selling point of Ladies of the Canyon is that it’s the first album of Mitchell’s maturity; the tunes are more varied and accomplished, but also flow together better as an album, while her lyrics are both more direct and poignant but also more accomplished linguistically than on her earlier work. Again, the album was self-produced, and for the new release it’s as if a fine layer of dust has been blown off the tapes, giving just a little more sparkle and definition. It’s also the album that contains, aside (maybe) from Blue, Joni Mitchell’s most recognizable “greatest hits” in the shape of the formidable closing trio of “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock” and “The Circle Game.”

Blue is, of course, by some distance Joni Mitchell’s best-known album, and while by no means as miserably unhappy as its reputation might suggest, it’s defining mood is one of yearning, loss and sorrow. Whereas Ladies of the Canyon had a rich and unpredictable range of styles and instrumentation, the opening “All I Want” with its driving acoustic guitar and impassioned vocal sets the tone for Blue. While not at all without irony or humor (“I wanna knit you a sweater/ I wanna write you a love letter/ I wanna make you feel better”), there’s a directness and intensity of emotion that immediately sets the album apart from her previous work.

The album also benefits from some of her best ever tunes; “All I Want” is catchy and immediate, but so are the majority of the songs on the album. And despite its aforementioned gloom, it’s a beautifully balanced record. Against the fragile unhappiness of “Little Green” and the utter self-accusing misery of “River” ― perhaps the bleakest Christmas song ever written ― there’s the joyous ebullience of “Carey,” the wistfulness of “California” and the wide-eyed still-yearning-but-happy “This Flight Tonight.” It’s not just one of Joni Mitchell’s greatest albums; Blue easily lives up to its reputation as one of the key albums of its era. As far as the remastering goes, it’s again not a huge departure from the album as you know it. On “River” and “Little Green,” the lead vocal has perhaps more presence than before, giving a feeling of intimacy that makes the songs, if anything, even more devastating. On “A Case of You,” the strummed guitar and percussive sounds are amazingly vivid, especially in headphones, again bringing the performance amazingly close.

Reissuing classic albums can be a kind of tax on the faithful fan, one more cynical milking of the cash cow by the label, but on the other hand, doing anything at all new or radical with them is a risky venture at best. But across these excellent releases, especially Song to a Seagull, but also Blue, Mitchell, without messing unduly with the music that people love, reduces the distance between the performances and the listener and in doing so, reiterates just how special this body of work was in the first place.

Summary
A subtle and thoughtful remastering/retouching transforms Joni Mitchell’s debut album and brings its three successors into sharper focus
88 %
Respectful restoration

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