It was while promoting 2002’s re-recorded orchestral anthology Travelogue that Joni Mitchell made her stroppy exit from the “corrupt cesspool” of the music biz. One of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century?as visionary as Dylan, as poetic as Cohen, as concise as Lennon ?she quit, protesting her inability to continue in what she perceived as the dumbed-down epoch of Britney and Aguilera. “What would I do?” she sighed. “Show my tits? Grab my crotch? Get hair extensions and a choreographer?”
Which begs the question why, two years later, has she decided to compile her own best-of? Dreamland is the first such retrospective collection since 1994’s Hits and Misses pairing, and in the wake of those comments it carries ominous implications. Is this a confirmation of her resignation by way of an authorised musical obituary? Or a dispatch from a one-woman picket line to remind the big fish in the cesspool just what they’re missing?
If Mitchell’s scorn is in any way motivated by guilt for the flood of ‘Junior Joni’ cash cows foisted on us by major labels, then Dreamland emphasises her singular genius. Significantly, the title track is fulled from 1977’s underrated masterpiece Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, an album still to receive a UK CD release. When holidaying in Jamaica in ’78, Joni played it to ex-Pistol John Lydon and his rasta entourage, one of whom complimented her that the tribal rhythms of “Dreamland” made him “want to eat white people”. It’s hard to imagine Norah Jones inducing similar cannibalistic urges which, in essence, is this collection’s triumph. It highlights the real Joni, not the misappropriated Joni who serves as lazy industry shorthand when discussing the Jacob’s Creek-sponsored Jewels and Meluas trying, in vain, to emulate the bruised relationship confessionals of 1971’s Blue.
Naturally, Blue and her earlier coffee-shop folk roots are here ?no “Woodstock”, though it’s surprising she’s actually chosen the albatross of 1970’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. However, it’s her increasingly sophisticated mid-’70s prime that rightly dominates, from ’74’s Court And Spark through The Hissing Of Summer Lawns’ jazz suffusions and the desolate beauty of 1976’s Hejira. Post ’77, there’s little beyond the cranky inclusion of ’88’s marginally ghastly Billy Idol duet “Dancin’ Clown”, a brace from 1991’s unexpected muse recovery Night Ride Home and three of those latter-day classical interpretations ?not ideal, but the brooding lyricism of “Amelia” and “Both Sides Now” remain devastating regardless of any philharmonic makeover. If this collection tells us anything about what’s going on in the retired Ms Mitchell’s head, it’s that behind her non-negotiable cynicism towards the industry there’s still a healthy recognition of her own contribution to its last 35 years. Until she can be convinced otherwise, the by no means definitive?but thoroughly representative?Dreamland underlines just what a loss she really is.