Here is a woman who, for a too-brief span of the early to mid-1970s, was the best songwriter in the world. For four great records -- starting with Ladies of the Canyon, concluding with Court and Spark -- Joni Mitchell established her reputation as the preeminent female singer-songwriter, setting the stage for many to follow and leaving herself with a legacy she would never come close to matching again.
While other legends like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Lou Reed have been able to produce work in their later years that could at least spar with their quintessential early joints, Mitchell has wandered from doomed experiment to doomed experiment. She doesn't deserve to be embalmed quite yet, but it's always been frustrating that she hasn't been able to turn it around.
If 2000's Both Sides Now, an orchestral concept record that charted the stages of a romantic relationship through classic numbers and a few choice Mitchell tunes, gave us hope, then Travelogue kicks us in the gut and mocks our foolish optimism. A two-disc submersion in Mitchell material complete with portentous full-orchestra reconfigurations, Travelogue does a great disservice to the woman's erratic body of work.
Mitchell has always defended her post-1974 career -- when her label wanted her to put together a Hits collection, she insisted on putting out a Misses collection as well to highlight all her personal favorites. Similarly, Travelogue is hurt by an overreliance on so-so songs that were shaky before Joni the Artist decided to gloop them up with strings. But at the same time, even some of her finest tunes -- "Woodstock" or "The Circle Game" or "For the Roses" -- lose their slippery elegance in these stifling, mannered arrangements.
Both Sides Now worked because of its light touch as well as Mitchell's enthusiasm to branch out from her typical pop-jazz framework. But that album was a salute to romance. In comparison, Travelogue feels like merely a doomed love affair between an aging relic and her own sad self.
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