NPR logo Enthralled By Jazz, Joni Mitchell Sets New Moods

Enthralled By Jazz, Joni Mitchell Sets New Moods

Joni Mitchell deserves more credit for her early-'80s output. hide caption

toggle caption

Talk About 'Shadow Classics'

Mitchell's work since the early '80s has often been disparaged — perhaps because it's inevitably compared with her '70s masterpieces. Is this fair? What other Mitchell albums deserve to be rediscovered?

Ladies' Man

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/11460541/11461255" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Moon at the Window

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/11460541/11461257" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

You Dream Flat Tires

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/11460541/11461251" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Mitchell art
  • CD: Wild Things Run Fast
  • Artist: Joni Mitchell
  • Genre: Folk-Pop
  • Label: Geffen, 1982

Joni Mitchell's work took an unexpected turn with Mingus, her streaky and often brilliant 1979 collaboration with jazz bassist Charles Mingus. Before it, she was the sharp-eyed songwriter stringing songs about troubled relationships across vast open prairie. After it, she sounded wiser and hipper, a jazz sophisticate whose melodies came bunched in waves and bursts of scat-singing capriciousness.

According to conventional wisdom, Before is where the world-changing stuff can be found — Blue and Hejira and the rest — and After is where Mitchell goes noodling, lost in the cul-de-sac of high concept. Wild Things Run Fast, her first set of new material after Mingus, suggests that's not quite a fair estimation. It has one of her most nuanced character studies — the slithery "Ladies Man" (audio), which sketches a smooth operator in tones that are admiring one minute ("You could charm the diamonds off a rattlesnake") and repulsed and mistrustful the next. One song waxes nostalgic about the "birth of rock 'n' roll days," while another finds Mitchell dispensing a withering insult — "You Dream Flat Tires" (audio) — over a shuffling backbeat that runs hot and then from time to time unexpectedly evaporates.

Wild Things also contains one of Mitchell's most inventive jazz inspirations, "Moon at the Window" (audio), which features her longtime foil Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone. Here's another chance to savor Mitchell's unique mood-setting skills: Moving through a furtive, surreptitious melody, she sings warily, sending a chill through the syncopated theme that's enhanced by her smears of painterly multi-tracked vocal harmony. It's a carefully assembled creation, but it feels ruled by impulse. The vibe sounds tremendously loose — Shorter is the king of the darting aside — and as a result, it's one of those nocturnal gems that happen in the lonely last hour of a jam session, when the paying customers have vanished and it's time to go home.

Purchase Featured Music

Wild Things Run Fast

Purchase Music

Buy Featured Music

Album
Wild Things Run Fast
Artist
Joni Mitchell

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.