Review: More Insights and Articulation From Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell/Archives – Volume 3 – The Asylum Years/Rhino
4.5 Out of Five Stars

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When Joni Mitchell made her surprise appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, it became the kind of comeback few people believed was ever possible. Mitchell, who was stricken with an aneurysm in 2016, was given very little chance of survival, much less of performing in public ever again. Consequently, her re-emergence was nothing short of the kind of surprise one only witnesses in movies, where a happy ending is simply a perfunctory part of the story.

Not surprisingly, Mitchell’s music is as present as it is pertinent, sustained through a series of archival collections that define and delineate the genesis of her early efforts, all the way back to the initial folk phases of her career.

That said, the latest entry in the Archive series finds her at what would soon be seen as the peak of her prowess. Having left Reprise Records and her fragile folk finesse behind, she transitioned from the role of a sensitive singer/songwriter into that of a sophisticated chanteuse, creating music that was clearly aimed at a bigger mainstream audience ready to embrace her more articulate arrangements and upbeat approach.

The Asylum Years digs deep into that mid-‘70s period that produced the initial Asylum albums — For the Roses, Court and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns—courtesy of demos, alternate takes, and live tracks recorded at the same time. As always, it offers some fascinating insights into Mitchell’s creative process. Likewise, collaborations that include sessions with her former beaus Crosby and Nash on early takes of “Cold Blue Steel,” Sweet Fire” and “For The Roses,” a pair of collaborations with James Taylor on “Electricity” and an early attempt at a classic rock and roll medley, and further efforts that enlisted Neil Young and the Stray Guitars for work on “You Turn Me On I’m A Radio” and “Raised on Robbery” (the latter recorded during sessions for Young’s Tonight’s The Night) transform some otherwise familiar songs via arrangements that are wholly different and distinctive from those that eventually emerged later on.

Likewise, the live concerts for Carnegie Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Royal Festival Hall offer additional illumination on where Mitchell was heading during this particular phase of her career. Tom Scott and the L.A. Express played a pivotal role during the latter part of this period, and their backing role for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion concert demonstrates the fact that the music Mitchell was making had reached a new level of intelligence and illumination.

As a result, The Asylum Years is not only a set suited for the aficionado but also one ideal for the novice. With five CDs and an expansive booklet, it’s not necessarily an inexpensive proposition. However, it could be considered the essence of essential.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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