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'Archives' box set surveys a crucial part of Joni Mitchell's pop career

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. At 79, Joni Mitchell has made a surprising return to public performances after a series of health problems. These strong appearances over the past year have increased interest in her long career, and a new box set surveys a crucial part of it. Titled Joni Mitchell, "Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975)," it contains five discs of studio recordings, demos and concert performances made during the height of Mitchell's commercial success. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the collection represents both a summation of Mitchell's pop achievement and a harbinger of her later, more experimental work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COLD BLUE STEEL AND SWEET FIRE")

JONI MITCHELL: (Singing) Cold Blue Steel out of money. One eye for the beat police. Sweet Fire calling, you can't deny me. You know what you need.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: By 1972, Joni Mitchell had recorded one masterpiece, the album "Blue," one of the great works of romanticism in any form, and was a key figure in the singer-songwriter boom, along with such friends as James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. But her audience wasn't as large as those of her male counterparts. Restless and ambitious, Mitchell left Reprise Records for Asylum Records, then a new Los Angeles haven for singer-songwriters, co-founded by David Geffen. In '72, she released "For The Roses," filled with gorgeous ballads of heartache and, at the prodding of Geffen, her first and only attempt to write a hit single. That would be "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio," heard on this new collection in a performance she gave at Carnegie Hall that same year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU TURN ME ON, I’M A RADIO")

MITCHELL: (Singing) If you're driving into town with a dark cloud above you, dial in the number who's bound to love you. Oh honey, you turn me on, I'm a radio. I'm a country station. I'm a little bit corny. I'm a wildwood flower waving for you. I'm a broadcasting tower waving for you. And I'm sending you out this signal here. I hope you can pick it up loud and clear. I know you don't like…

TUCKER: Well, that song got Geffen off her back, and Mitchell was on a songwriting roll. She followed "For The Roses" with "Court And Spark" in 1974. It went to No. 2 on the charts and is as pure a pop album as any she created. More importantly, it was a perfect conjoining of alluring melodies with the infinite nuances of her voice. As a lyricist, Mitchell organizes images and metered verse that showcase her phrasing and shape her daringly wayward song structures.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELP ME")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Help me. I think I'm falling in love again. When I get that crazy feeling, I know I'm in trouble again. I'm in trouble 'cause you're a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-talking ladies man. And you love your lovin', but not like you love your freedom.

TUCKER: That's "Help Me" in a live version from a Los Angeles show in '74. This third volume of the Mitchell Archive series has five discs of rough demos, alternate takes and concert performances. It includes one exceptional song that was left off of "For The Roses," a piano ballad called "Like Veils Said Lorraine."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE VEILS SAID LORRAINE")

MITCHELL: (Singing) It's the veils you tear off one by one, said Lorraine. No, it’s walls we put up, said that tired voice again. The chisel gets blunt, and the sword gets profane. Nobody's blame. But you bind up the stone chips in the gauze that you've slain.

TUCKER: In an interview with Cameron Crowe included in this package, Mitchell says that that lovely piece of music has the most banal origin. It's an account of a conversation she had with her real estate agent, who was indeed named Lorraine. By the time we get to the last third of this collection, Mitchell has introduced the jazz fusion accompaniment of the L.A. Express, a band led by the slick saxophonist Tom Scott that backed her both in the studio and here in a 1974 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAR ON A HILL")

MITCHELL: (Singing) I've been sitting up waiting for my sugar to show. I've been listening to the sirens and the radio. He said he'd be over three hours ago. I've been waiting for his car on the hill. He makes friends easy. He's not like me. I watch for judgement anxiously. Now where in the city can that boy be? Waiting for a car, climbing, climbing, climbing the hill.

TUCKER: "The Hissing Of Summer Lawns" in 1975 signaled Mitchell's decisive break with singer-songwriter pop. She started employing jazz players to execute more open, discursive forms.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BOHO DANCE")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Down in the cellar in the Boho Zone, I went looking for some sweet inspiration. Oh, well, just another hard-time band with N**** affectations. I was a hopeful in rooms like this, when I was working cheap. It's an old romance, the Boho dance. It hasn't gone to sleep.

TUCKER: When I interviewed Mitchell in 1995, she said that this was the period when she realized that, quote, "Americans like simplistic emotions in music. They like their happiness major and their tragedy minor. And about as complicated accord as they can take is a seventh." At the time, that struck me as condescending, but I wasn't working on Mitchell's wavelength. She was done being ingratiating. She wanted an audience that would accept her artistic challenges. I still think that after this, her turn away from pop accessibility resulted in much more uneven albums. But I respect that stubborn adventurousness, even as I treasure the hits collected on this unguarded, generous collection.

MOSLEY: Ken Tucker reviewed Joni Mitchell's "Archives, Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975)." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the film "Anatomy Of A Fall," which won the top prize at Cannes. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.