New Joni Mitchell Box Set Documents the Foundations of One of Music’s Epochal Streaks

Against all odds, Archives, Vol. 3 reveals even more depth to an already-profound legacy

Music Reviews Joni Mitchell
New Joni Mitchell Box Set Documents the Foundations of One of Music’s Epochal Streaks

Demo recordings are always a risky proposition when you’re considering whether to take the plunge on a box set. As any listener who’s been lured by a lavish multi-disc product shot can tell you, far too many box sets include half-baked sketches that might satisfy passing curiosity but otherwise fail to gel into a complete listening experience, much less one that listeners will feel motivated to come back to over and over. There are, of course, exceptions. When Rhino Records released the first volume in a series of archival Joni Mitchell box sets in 2021 (which nearly topped Paste’s year-end list), we found out just how exceptional Mitchell’s works in progress are.

If you tend to think of demos as throwaways that would be best left in dusty shoeboxes at the bottom of an artist’s closet, it’s an understatement to say that that’s just not the case when it comes to Joni Mitchell’s stockpile of recordings—where we hear her taking snapshots of songs that are still fresh from being newly worked into finished form. But even though the value of Mitchell’s audio sketchwork isn’t news anymore, the material on Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years 1972-1975 is no less revelatory. From literally the opening guitar strum, as Mitchell weaves her way through the iconic, winding chord progression that forms the basis of her classic “Cold Blue and Sweet Fire,” this package more than justifies its existence (and price tag).

Archives, Vol. 3 documents the building blocks for three of her albums: 1972’s For the Roses, 1974’s Court and Spark and 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In a career marked by an irrepressible hunger for artistic growth, this period saw Mitchell’s creativity explode as she perfected her singular ability to approach the studio as a canvas. Taken together, the original releases surely rank among the most epochal three-album streaks in music history. A short run-down goes as follows: after making what is perhaps the definitive embodiment of the “confessional singer/songwriter” paradigm in 1971 with Blue, Joni Mitchell promptly started to stretch beyond that mold.

For the Roses showcased the increasing sophistication of her compositional voice, her guitar chords functioning as a silken thread through harmonic frameworks that were at once delicate and supple but built on structures as sturdy as cable suspension bridges. Then, with Court and Spark, Mitchell came into her own as an arranger and producer, leaving her mark on the album as an artform. Like many of the popular acts of the time, Mitchell took a great leap forward in fleshing-out her songs, employing not only an arsenal of instruments but also timbre and hue to great effect. At points on Court and Spark, the various components fit together like interlocking sections of an orchestra.

Finally, with the The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell took a decisive step into the realm of abstract expression, her experiments playing on the ear less like songs and more like the sonic illustration of what it feels like to be in a dream. What’s most remarkable about Archives, Vol. 3, however, is that, for an artist who took such advantage of the studio, we get to hear how much power these songs convey even in barebones form. Whether working by herself on acoustic or piano, or whether playing in a stripped-down format side-by-side with other musicians (including James Taylor, Graham Nash and Neil Young in this case), Mitchell didn’t actually need to dress these songs up for them to stand on their own.

To be sure, Joni Mitchell’s arrival as a production visionary remains crucial to this material as the world has known it for half a century. But a huge part of the appeal here comes from being able to behold the naked essence of these songs as songs in the most literal, pure sense. If you’ve already fallen in love with the classic versions of these songs, it’s stunning to discover that it doesn’t sound like anything’s missing in their skeletal form. Case in point: On the live, solo-acoustic version of “Cold Blue and Sweet Fire”—recorded at Carnegie Hall nearly nine months before the release of For the Roses—Mitchell’s voice resounds with a clarity so stunning you almost have to squint at the intensity of its radiance.

Likewise, we now get to hear a mix of “Barangrill” that consists solely of guitar and vocals (including backing harmony vocals). The original mix that made it onto For the Roses opens with woodwind player Tom Scott doubling Mitchell’s guitar hook. Archives, Vol. 3 is rife with examples like this. Does it break the momentum to hear Mitchell and James Taylor giggle and hack their way through a blues medley filled with stops and starts (as charming as that scenario might sound on paper)? Sure. Is there anything more than novelty value in hearing Mitchell sing a scratch vocal to guide a saxophone part on yet another take on “Cold Blue and Sweet Fire”? Probably not.

On balance, though, Archives, Vol. 3 is well worth the moments where you have to put your archeologist helmet on and brush the sand away to get to the buried treasure. And, as Mitchell’s unaccompanied solo performances diverge from the more ornate versions on Court and Hissing, the contrast mutually amplifies the beauty of both presentations. Even with the three original albums alone, Joni Mitchell has left us with such a profound legacy that it didn’t seem possible for anything to come along and reveal more depth to her art. Against all odds, Archives, Vol. 3 does just that and more.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com

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