In a career that spans almost half a century, Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell has released a body of work that has seen her embrace a variety of creative areas that far outreach her meticulously crafted musical output. When Mitchell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, she was described as a "consummate artist ... an accomplished musician, songwriter, poet and painter". Beyond this, she has also explored multimedia art and ballet (both as a dance teacher and choreographer). However, it is for a narrow aspect of her musical output that she is best known.
Mitchell's much-admired early songwriting produced hits for folk artists Judy Collins and Fairport Convention among others, before providing her with the foundation for both her self-titled debut album in 1968 and the following year's set Clouds. It was the latter album that provided the song that has perhaps become her signature tune, Big Yellow Taxi.
Since then, she has used an approach that defies simple generic categorisation, with her emotive and poetically incisive lyrics, richly subtle jazz-tinged melodies and often beguiling vocal delivery hitting an emotional nerve with a broad cross-section of people.
In keeping with the practices of music journalism, biographers have tended to avoid any study of Mitchell's music, choosing instead to investigate the contextualising aspects of her personal life.
Consequently, the Canadian singer born Roberta Joan Anderson has become partly defined by a childhood bout of polio that resulted in the restricted use of her left hand (hence her unusual chord shapes, often giving her material a jazz feel), the adoption of her first child, her shortlived marriage to folk singer Chuck Mitchell, or her friendships with David Crosby and Graham Nash (the former mentored her and produced her debut album, she lived with the latter in California, and she then toured with both as support to Crosby, Stills and Nash).
Tendencies in biography to concentrate on context over text often create imbalanced accounts of artists' development. The opposite is also often true of musicological approaches to a musician's body of work where the text is of paramount importance and the context often ignored.
In this book, Lloyd Whitesell attempts to provide an in-depth musicological study that avoids a total divorce of text and context. Indeed, his comprehensive survey of Mitchell's catalogue not only arranges the discussions in a series of themes (harmony, melody, large-scale form) that allow space for full exploration of her songwriting as musicology, but also extend to include such aspects as the poetic voice and even the contextualising theme of individual and personal freedom. The last is represented by a chapter devoted to the various impacting voices of bohemianism, creative licence, spiritual liberation and what the author calls "the journey quest".
As a result, Whitesell avoids simple chronology and, through exploration of individual songs "conceived within a holistic framework that takes account of poetic nuance, cultural reference, and stylistic evolution over a long, adventurous career", allows Mitchell's music to tell an alternative biography that avoids the mythology of "personal struggle as site of authenticity".
The Music of Joni Mitchell employs a set of conceptual tools that the author has developed specifically to unravel Mitchell's songs. Through these, Whitesell is able to fully demonstrate the sophistication inherent in the music's construction. Furthermore, he reveals a level of innovation that is often overlooked in assessments of the songs.
This he does by placing Mitchell into the musical contexts of both popular and "art" musics. In so doing he challenges the suitability of analytical concepts initially constructed to dissect art music by noting the areas in which the two forms overlap.
It's in this overlap that Mitchell is placed, and in locating his investigation into this intersection Whitesell calls into question the cultural hierarchies often repre-sented by concepts of art music (symphonic, profound, complex, of value) against popular music (entertaining, simple, passing value). He therefore demands that the study of Mitchell's work requires a greater fluidity in approach.
The resulting text is as rigorous in its analysis as it is ambitious in its aims. It is an invaluable contribution to the study of contemporary popular music that stretches far beyond the disciplines of musicology.
The Music of Joni Mitchell
By Lloyd Whitesell
Oxford University Press
288pp, £54.00 and £11.99
ISBN 9780195307573 and 07993
Published 28 August 2008