It’s ironic that after Joni Mitchell’s pop-icon status was recently revitalized by Janet Jackson’s sampling of “Big Yellow Taxi,” she would shortly afterward moon the hiphop nation with the supercilious diatribe “Taming the Tiger,” the title track of her first record in four years. With a purer-than-thou posture that has ceased to be endearingnot to mention her presumed brotherhood with Pablo Picasso and Miles DavisMitchell exalts herself as an artistic fugitive: “I’m a runaway from the record biz/From the hoods in the hood/And the whiny white kids.” She said much the same in 1972 on For the Roses, retreating from the cruel industry that made her rich by locking her up to record 1971’s landmark Blue. In those days, she sounded soulfully fey; today, she sounds merely cranky.
Her damnation of hiphop and alt rock sounds sanctimonious, but worse, it comes off as brazenly bigoted, considering that the same subversive spirit that gushed through her ’70s work, for better and worse, propels the best of those genres todayand besides, Mitchell herself admits that she hasn’t been paying much attention to popular culture in recent years. As Mitchell continues her poetic denunciation of music awards, FM radio, and the general quality of today’s music, she caps off each dour verse with the word “boring.” And yes, Mitchell does sound overwhelmed with boredom on Taming the Tigerto the point of catatonia.
Lyrically, the new record is quintessential Joni Mitchellfinely etched confessions and observations that are at best inspired and probing, and at worst facile and insipid. Vocally, however, it is remarkably bloodless, with minimal melodic savvy: When Mitchell sings about affairs of the heart, she renders the lyrics with the emotional warmth of a reptile. Rather than kindle her social commentaries with the vim worthy of her words, she delivers them with the stoicism of a newscaster.
Much of Taming the Tiger deals with the cycles of relationships, from the initial anxieties of defining and sustaining them to the frustrations and agony of watching them wither and crumble. But Mitchell never sounds truly in loveat least as love is detailed in “Love Puts on a New Face”or saddened by her cat’s departure, as described on “Man From Mars.” When Mitchell cries for her lost love on “Man From Mars” with such doltish lines as, “I can’t get through the day/Without at least one big boo hoo,” she sounds like one of the whiny white girls she vilifies in the title track, only older. She pens some frisky lyrics on “The Crazy Cries of Love”: “They were laughing/They were dancing in the rain/They knew their love was a strong one/When they heard the far-off whistle of a train” but she imbues them with no sensuality.
Mitchell’s dissertations on worldly concerns are equally indifferent. Even with such thorny lyrics like, “‘Kiss my ass,’ I said/And I threw my drink…/ Tequila trickling down/His business suit” on the feminist anthem “Lead Balloon,” her insouciant delivery obscures her anger. Much of Mitchell’s unwitting emotional detachment stems from her dispassionate singing, but much also derives from the metallic instrumentation, which is overwhelmed by frosty keyboard washes and dreadful guitar chords. Except for the rough-hewn guitar strumming on “Lead Balloon,” the music sounds best suited to the tundra. She sings of a rollicking party on “Harlem in Havana,” with vivid imagery (“Black girls dancin’/Long and leggy/Barkers barking”), but the song, in its indolence, doesn’t manage to evoke either Harlem or Havana. And for all Mitchell’s pretensions as a colorist, she never fully brings to life the “electric leaves” and “pyrotechnic explosions of your autumn” she details in “Love Puts on a New Face” either lyrically or sonically.
As she did on 1974’s Court and Spark, Mitchell overdubs herself gratuitously, singing her own backup vocals and playing most of the instruments, but she exhibits no studio acumen for pulling off compelling textures, rhythms, or melodies. She enlists an esteemed roster of collaborators, but she doesn’t come near to maximizing their potential. Jazz drummer Brian Blade is relegated to soft rumblings and pedestrian rock backbeats instead of the incendiary polyrhythms he’s mostly known for; bassist Larry Klein and pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz get smothered by thick layers of keyboard mush. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter shows the most signs of life as his piquant soprano flutters around Mitchell’s musings, but even Shorter sounds like a robin searching for refuge from a bitter winter.CP
Joni Mitchell performs with Bob Dylan Thursday, Nov. 5, at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.