We hear a drummer counting off and then a half-sentence from his bandleader, Joni Mitchell, who in April 1972, was embarking on the first official recording sessions for For the Roses. One year earlier, she’d released Blue, the album that solidified her place, at the age of 27, as one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. After that came a period of reflection and retreat from the music industry and its hometown of Los Angeles, both of which she’d begun to view with suspicion. She moved to a stone cabin in rural British Columbia, listened to the arbutus trees rustling at her window, entertained the occasional deranged fan who managed to find her there, and wrote songs about whatever came to her.
Many of these new songs were about an artist’s relationship to her own work; to the audiences who receive and justify it; and to the middlemen who both facilitate and corrupt this exchange. The sojourn to the country had been artistically fruitful, but Mitchell, whose questioning mind was at its sharpest when it took its own motives up for examination, eventually started to wonder why she was there. The house had been “conceived out of paranoia,” she told an audience later. She’d hoped to escape the corruption of the city: “Suddenly everything that was good and virtuous seemed very important to me. Well, that’s alright, but it leaves very little room for humanness, you know?” In late 1971, she returned to L.A. and started recording.
“Give me that again,” it sounds like she’s saying on the tape as the drummer counts off a full-band rehearsal of “See You Sometime” on a new box set, Joni Mitchell: Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975). One benefit of life among the humans: other musicians to play with. Mitchell had never been a foursquare folk songwriter, but the songs she’d written since Blue were more complexly rhythmic than anything that had come before. Evidently, their contours suggested to her the sound of an ensemble, in contrast to the largely solitary delivery of her work until that point. For the Roses, in its final form, is a transition between masterpieces, with the starkness of Blue on one side and the jazzy full-band exuberance of 1974’s Court and Spark on the other. But as demonstrated on Archives, Vol. 3, the excellent latest entry in a series of releases that collect previously unreleased demos and alternate versions from her back catalog, she already had a germ of the Court and Spark sound in mind when she began recording its predecessor.
The box set—which also includes the exhilarating live album Miles of Aisles and the impressionistic The Hissing of Summer Lawns—covers a period of Mitchell’s career that already resists linear narrativizing. It was a time when she seemed to be pushing her music closer to an ideal that only she could see or hear, and her most radio-friendly work rubbed up against her most experimental. Asylum Years, at 5 CDs and 96 tracks in its full version, is an exhaustive presentation of Mitchell’s process in this era. Some of the recordings are so good that it’s difficult to understand how they sat in the vaults for this long. Others are brilliant, but close enough to the released versions that anyone with less than a scholarly interest in Mitchell would be better served by the official albums. Still others—like an instrumental jam that flirts with classical Indian music, or a duet with James Taylor on a medley of early rock’n’roll covers—are more like sketches or larks, exceedingly rare peeks at the discard pile of an artist who edited herself pitilessly, so that even demos often sound more or less finished. There’s even one wholly unheard song: “Like Veils Said Lorraine,” a document of spiritual conflict recorded as a demo for For the Roses, whose imagery—“More veils beyond veils/Always walls behind the walls”—is evocative but feels unfinished, a dreamlike wisp from a songwriter who favored lived detail. The set’s revelations don’t exactly clarify the journey from solo singer-songwriter to barnstorming bandleader to uncategorizable avant-gardist she partook in the early-middle 1970s. In the case of the early For the Roses sessions, they only complicate it further.
Back to the tape: “See You Sometime,” a plainspoken ballad about lingering affection in a relationship’s aftermath, performed on solo piano in its finished form, is the song on For the Roses that could most easily fit on Blue. But on that day in April ’72, Mitchell had a rhythm section with her: bassist Tim Drummond and drummer Kenny Buttrey, Nashville session killers who’d recently backed up Mitchell’s friend Neil Young on Harvest. Mitchell tells them to run it again, Buttrey counts off, and for a moment you’re hearing a premonition of Court and Spark.
The hi-hats gently pulsate and the bass offers a descending countermelody, bringing Mitchell’s song out of the folk idiom and toward the groove she would find in a couple of years. But in the bridge, the rhythm’s subtlety falters. Mitchell’s piano gets a little funkier, and Buttrey and Drummond overshoot their mark, playing an R&B rave-up that only lasts a few moments before they get back to the amorphous beat of the verse. The solo version that made the album is more conservative, in that it more closely resembles Mitchell’s earlier work than the future sound she seemed to be reaching for, but cutting the drums and bass section was a wise choice: when she’s on her own, the rhythmic switchbacks don’t come across as ostentatious, but as natural extensions of her idiosyncratic vocal phrasing. Soon, she would find the musicians who understood how to follow her.
The session with Buttrey and Drummond also produced an early version of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” this time with Young himself playing harmonica and electric guitar. If there’s one recording to hear on Asylum Years, this is it. They take it a little slower than Mitchell eventually would, drawing out the wistful feeling in the descending chords of its verses. Young plays beautifully on both instruments, adding a winding melody on harmonica but keeping his guitar accents minimal. It sounds just about exactly how a fan might imagine Mitchell playing with Young and his Harvest band might sound, an ideal union of her compositional intricacy and their easygoing sway.
The story goes that Mitchell wrote “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio” in response to her label boss David Gefffen’s complaints that she didn’t have enough pop material. It is perhaps the album’s most richly contradictory expression of her relationship to fame at the time: a baldfaced pander to radio DJs, a sly satire of its own attempts at mass appeal, and a love song with all the emotional nuance of her less commercial material. The final version, with Mitchell’s insistent acoustic guitar driving the rhythm and the band mostly stripped away, feels truer to her sensibility at the time, and was her first single to crack the Top 40. But the take with Young sounds more like a radio hit: a glimpse of a path not taken, on which Mitchell fully inhabited the Southern California soft rock sound, a box that in reality could never contain her.
There’s one more Young collaboration on Asylum Years, from just over a year later, a time when both artists were in vastly different places from their previous studio meeting. Mitchell was preparing to record Court and Spark, and Young was in the middle of making Tonight’s the Night. On one side: sunlit, danceable, intellectually probing. On the other: sunglasses at night, apocalyptic, stoned to incapacitation. Joni dropped in on Neil’s sessions one day and they ran through “Raised on Robbery,” whose three-chord boogie and lyric about an ill-fated barroom romance make it a surprisingly apt candidate for the doom and gloom Young and his band were doling out at the time. There was no way the results were ever going to make it onto a Joni Mitchell album, but it’s a thrill to hear them trying: Young shredding leather-jacket lead guitar licks and moaning incoherent backing vocals on the choruses, Mitchell swaggering and swinging above the din.
By the time of Court and Spark, Mitchell had found the players who could follow her, and it wasn’t Neil Young and his goons. A drummer friend had suggested that jazz musicians might get her closer to the sound she wanted, and eventually she hooked up with the L.A. Express, a fusion group led by saxophonist Tom Scott. Something like “jazz pop” is the quickest shorthand to describe the album’s sensibility, though the music doesn’t have much to do with swing. The harmonic vocabulary, full of airy suspended chords, has something in common with the language Miles Davis and his bandmates (future Mitchell collaborator Wayne Shorter prominent among them) developed in the ’60s, but the rhythms are pure Joni. On Asylum Years, this period opens with another major highlight: a 12-minute solo piano suite encompassing fragments of “Down to You,” “Court and Spark,” and “Car on a Hill,” with improvised instrumental passages connecting the sketches of each song. In a liner-note interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell dismisses her own playing on the suite as noodling, but it provides an invaluable window on her compositional process: trying out a harmony, sitting with its ambiguity for a while, moving on to the next one.
There are several other solo Court and Spark demos on Asylum Years. An acoustic guitar take on “Trouble Child” shows how holistically the album’s arrangements emerged from Mitchell’s initial conception of each song, filling out the frame of her music rather than imposing themselves upon it. You can hear the band’s entire low-slung groove in the simple guitar figure she uses to open the demo. “Help Me,” Mitchell’s biggest-ever hit, isn’t quite as close to completion in its demo take, but there are faint outlines of its slick instrumental hooks in the chord voicings of Mitchell’s guitar. The stripped-down take highlights the ingenuity in the song’s bones: the way Mitchell expands and contracts the rhythm to accommodate the flow of the lyric, or uses an unusual chord change to inflect the feeling of the single sustained vocal note that rides atop it. The song addresses a relationship that the narrator knows won’t work, and the joyous interplay of the musicians on the album version can fool you into thinking the stakes aren’t all that high, that Mitchell is on a breezy patio somewhere, assessing her situation at a distance. In the final section of the demo, she repeats the title with increasing edge and ardor over a single churning chord, and you know she’s down bad.
1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns was Joni’s biggest break yet from the mold of her early work, an album that was misunderstood at the time but later emerged as a classic of her catalog. The demos on Asylum Years are most striking for how traditional they sound in contrast to the finished album, whose smeared textures seem to emanate directly from the subconscious of the characters in its third-person narratives. As with Court and Spark, there are some flashes of the final versions in the rhythms and harmonies that Mitchell outlines on guitar and piano. But little in the strummed early version of “The Jungle Line,” for instance, could prepare you for the rumble of synthesizers and sampled field recordings that characterize its incarnation on the album, a gesture that still sounds jarringly radical today. “Harry’s House” is present here without its hallucinatory detour into the jazz standard “Centerpiece.” The Hissing of Summer Lawns may have been a heroic leap into the darkness for Mitchell, but it started as a searching step.
Two full live concerts round out the bulk of the Asylum Years tracklist. Both are spectacular, as standalone listening experiences and demonstrations of how far Mitchell’s music progressed in two short years. The first, a February 23, 1972 appearance at Carnegie Hall that has been floating around for years as a bootleg radio broadcast recording, is presented in much better fidelity here. It was her first show back after the hiatus in rural Canada, and the setlist is roughly split between songs from Blue and the not-yet-released For the Roses, with a few earlier chestnuts thrown in. The crowd is rapt, responding to even the songs they don’t know yet with roaring applause. Performing solo, save for a faintly audible cameo from her friends in CSNY singing harmonies on the set-closing “Circle Game,” Joni meets the audience’s enthusiasm with gregarious banter and vocal performances that are as good and sometimes even better than what she put down on the records. Her rendition of the Blue classic “A Case of You,” in particular, is breathtaking.
The second is a March 3, 1974 show at Los Angeles’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, backed by the Court and Spark band. Some of its setlist is familiar from Miles of Aisles, which documented the same tour. The highlights are songs from earlier albums that didn’t make that official live release, reworked with arrangements that are bigger and more energetic than their presentation on Mitchell’s stark first few albums. Set opener “This Flight Tonight” is rendered as rollicking rock’n’roll, reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, a world away from its intimate solo delivery on Blue and at the Carnegie Hall show, which it also opens. Ladies of the Canyon deep cut “Rainy Night House” gets a suitably sultry reimagining, the instrumentalists slow-burning like the world’s greatest cocktail lounge act (complete with jazz flute) and Mitchell crooning and belting with newfound bravura. She hadn’t lost any of the depth of her early years, but now she was complementing it with the showmanship of a professional entertainer.
Compared to Bob Dylan, whose similarly minded archival releases reveal a penchant for writing and rewriting, Mitchell was more deliberate, less antically stream-of-consciousness. Most of the melodies and words were already in place, though the occasional odd phrase will strike listeners who are accustomed to the finished product. (In “Help Me,” the love object is a “rambler and a gambler and a boogie man,” rather than a “sweet talkin’ ladies man.”) The most pronounced of these changes is in “Down to You,” Court and Spark’s orchestral centerpiece, in which a one-night stand prompts a broader meditation on transience and change. The piano suite, recorded in summer 1973, presents the earliest version in the box set. Addressing a “constant stranger” who may or may not be the singer herself in the first verse, Mitchell gives a blunt assessment: “You’re a good person/You’re a bad person, too.”
You don’t often encounter this sort of binary logic in her songs, which are more oriented toward observation than judgment. Within a few months, she had found the right phrase: “You’re a kind person/You’re a cold person, too,” as heard on a demo from September or October, and again on the final album version. The emotional valence is the same, but now the language is just a little more precise, and a little closer to the realm of neutral description. Anyone could decide anyone else is bad for any reason at all. “Cold” still has a note of accusation, but it isn’t as sweeping, and it refers to a specific set of behaviors. A bad person is condemned, a cold person is just cold.
That small but consequential edit shows us something important about the philosophical project of Mitchell’s songwriting. There’s kindness in looking closely, forgiveness in rigorous commitment to simple truth. That commitment was already firmly in place by the period covered by Asylum Years, which is marked primarily by her development as a musician rather than a writer. But maybe its allowance for ambiguity and openness also encouraged her to pursue the same principles in her rhythms and harmonies, unfurling the vistas of her groundbreaking mid-’70s work for exploration. It’s the kind of cliche Joni Mitchell would never dream of using in a song: The truth will set you free.
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