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Who could have imagined in 1969 that Joni Mitchell, an emblematic figure of the "Woodstock" generation, would ever try to walk in the shoes of the Chairman of the Board, an icon who identified more with Nixon than with naked mud splashing? Yet here she is in the year 2000 driving one to the fences with a thematic recording that can only be compared to Frank Sinatra's classic Capitol albums from the '50s. Both Sides Now is programmed as a sequential journey through the emotions of a love affair. There's no doubt the millennium has turned, baby.
With Both Sides Now, Mitchell has hit a frozen rope to the heart. Although she has always sung about emotion, her singing has never been this emotive before. Here, a catch in the throat, a gossamer glide, or a guttural smear gives each word a meaning that's greater than the sum of what's written down. Like those old Sinatra discs, everything here is under control, but its emotional directness comes from those places where the singer is transported by the music only to find a deeper level of meaning. The sheer physical joy of her singing underlies all the other emotions, from ecstasy to devastation.
The orchestral arrangements by Vince Mendoza give Mitchell just enough net for this high-wire act. The Duke Ellington references in the arrangement of "Comes Love" underline the song's essential playfulness. Mitchell's vocal gives it that feeling as well, but, in the manner of a Billie Holiday or a Chet Baker, also creates the feverish desperation of how love's first flush blinds its victim to all else -- at least for a while.
That same fevered bliss comes through in the opening cut, "You're My Thrill." Few lines in American pop are as simply erotic as "When I look at you/I can't keep still/You're my thrill." Mitchell delivers them without heavy breathing, but nails that tingle in the spine, the anticipation and the gooseflesh.
In just a couple of verses of "You've Changed," she moves from an accusatory tone to fond remembrance to bleak acceptance. Sure, the words hold these emotions, but it's the voice that paints them persuasively. There's no denying the venom when she sings "Sometimes I hate you" in "Sometimes I'm Happy," or the woozy slapstick when she sings "I'd rather be punch drunk" in "I Wish I Were in Love Again."
This may seem a far cry from the folk ingénue who had the "Urge for Going," but, on the other hand, the redemption brought by overpowering love and the regret of having been foolish enough to surrender one's heart have been recurring themes throughout her work.
As the big six-oh starts to stare her in the face (she's 56), her influence, especially on just about every girl who's grabbed a guitar after her, is undeniable. It makes sense for her to visit her influences, to look back from where she came. Unlike Linda Ronstadt, though, Mitchell doesn't do it nostalgically. With all the miles she's racked up since the '60s, she can finally sing "Both Sides Now" with an authority missing from the wet-behind-the-ears version on her 1969 album Clouds. The Peter Max-like images of the lyrics are smashed to bits by a world-weary old master who's seen everything but still likes to dream of more.