St. Vincent gave us one of the best albums of the year. Should we thank Joni Mitchell for that?
Joni Mitchell is celebrated in a new biography, and St. Vincent has a terrific new album.
Back in 2015, there was a Joni Mitchell death scare. The beloved Canadian songwriter was found unconscious in her Los Angeles home after suffering a brain aneurysm.
Social media panic spread in a way we've become all too accustomed to when bad news breaks about treasured musical heroes. The fingers-crossed, hopes for the best were succinctly summed up in a tweet by Annie Clark, the guitarist and Mitchell fan known as St. Vincent: "NO. Not Joni."
And indeed the prayers of St. Vincent — who, by the way, has just released a fabulous new album called Masseduction (more on that later) and plays the Electric Factory on Nov. 28 — came true: The now 73-year-old Mitchell survived. Details of her health have been sketchy, but she has been spotted in public, including at Clive Davis' Grammy party earlier this year.
Now this fall, Mitchell is having an appreciation moment. It's occasioned by a biography: David Yaffe's Reckless Daughter: A Portrait Of Joni Mitchell (Sarah Crichton Books, $28), an adoring but not uncritical book built on hours of conversation with the artist.
And there's also Joni: The Anthology (Picador, $26), edited by Barney Hoskyns, a collection of essays and reviews from such reputable publications as Rolling Stone and the New York Times as well as porn magazine Swank, which creepily concluded that the best place to find teenage girls in 1976 was at a Joni Mitchell concert.
Yaffe's book serves as a jumping off point for tributes to the singer born Roberta Joan Anderson, who kept her far-less-talented first husband Chuck Mitchell's name after they divorced in 1968. (And who, according to Philadelphia folk DJ Gene Shay, debuted her early classic "Both Sides, Now" on his WMMR-FM (93.3) radio show in 1966 after writing it while in town for a stand at the Rittenhouse Square folk club the Second Fret.)
In The New Yorker, poet Dan Chiasson's essay ranks Mitchell above the Beatles and Bob Dylan in making "the best music of her generation." Lindsay Zoladz's piece in the Ringer is titled Joni Mitchell: Fear of a Female Genius, in keeping with the theme that, if you don't swoon over early, deeply personal albums like Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and Blue (1971), there's probably something wrong with you.
Mitchell has that reputation in part because of her musicality, which has made devotees of everyone from counterculture-era figures like David Crosby (he's one of a series of dudes in Reckless Daughter who fall for her and quickly realize she's far more talented) to giants like Prince and Herbie Hancock, who won an album of the year Grammy for the 2007 tribute River: The Joni Letters.
And it's also because of Mitchell's refusal to be limited by any conventional expectations of what a guitar-strumming female singer-songwriter should sound like or write about. It's that independent spirit that manifests in influence on contemporary artists like St. Vincent and Philadelphia songwriter Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee.
As Alexandra Pollard pointed out in the Guardian back in 2015 when Mitchell's health was in peril, the tributes issued at the time almost without fail referred to her as a "confessional" songwriter, a term that Mitchell loathes. As she explained to a previous biographer in 2009, the word evokes two scenarios: Either the police trying to get a confession out of a prisoner, or "the voluntary confession of Catholicism … where you talk to this priest and tell him you're having sexual fantasies … that's the only type of confession I know — voluntary and under duress, and I am not confessing."
Now's probably a good time to make a confession: I admire her music but have never been that big of a Joni Mitchell fan. I am, however, wild about St. Vincent.
St. Vincent, talking to i-D magazine in 2015, expressed a similar distaste for the word. "Sometimes when people describe music as confessional, it's a term they relate to female artists," she said. "I don't often hear it in relation to men. And I think there's something slightly pejorative about the term … it presupposes, in a kind of sexist way, this idea that's ingrained in culture that women lack the imagination to write about anything other than their exact literal lives. And that's not true."
No one who's followed St. Vincent's career would accuse Clark of lacking imagination. Layers of meaning and consideration of the guises we wear while performing in public have been a key part of her art going back at least as far as her 2009 album Actor, and fit in nicely on Love This Giant, her 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne. And on 2014's self-titled but certainly not confessional St. Vincent, she portrayed herself as a silver-haired pseudo cyborg, albeit one who is an almighty shredder on electric guitar.
Expertise on her instrument is something Clark shares with Mitchell, known for inventing her own chords, in some cases out of necessity after she contracted polio as a girl. St. Vincent's thrilling guitar work has been a hallmark of all her albums, and first grabbed my attention with her cover of the Beatles' "Dig a Pony" recorded in 2007 for a London Black Cab Session in 2007.
With Masseduction (Loma Vista *** 1/2), Clark has made a bold, really catchy record that's one of the most exciting releases of the year. Some of its primary color presentation comes courtesy of Philadelphia visual artist Alex Da Corte, whose installations have been shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in West Philadelphia and MassMOCA in North Adams, Mass. He directed the video for the album's first single, "New York."
St. Vincent has previously operated on the outskirts of pop, but here she works with ubiquitous producer Jack Antonoff (Lorde, Pink, Taylor Swift) to build irrefutable hooks that don't limit her ability to put across ideas of substance.
"Los Ageless" is about a society obsessed with appearance and the objectification of female bodies, a subject she has a dual perspective on as both a performer who spends her time being gazed at and a person who was until recently in a relationship with supermodel Cara Delevingne. And thematically, the album revolves around a lyric on the title track about a predicament of the digital age: "I can't turn off what turns me on." (And I can't help it, that reminds me of Mitchell's "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio." )
Masseduction is by no means a linear, straight-ahead confessional album. It's much more intelligently and intriguingly put together than that. But Clark has described it as being about "sex and drugs and sadness."
There's a line in "Los Ageless" attached to a gargantuan hook that's particularly affecting: "How can anybody have you?" Clark asks. "How can anybody have you and lose you, and not lose their minds too?" It tears you up because it's about desire and the pain of loss, and amidst all the album's shiny surfaces, it feel like a howl of earnest emotion. Not a confession exactly, but the kind of expression of personal truth that connects with listeners on a human level, just like those early Joni Mitchell albums did.