Spanning over an astonishing 8000 words, Joni Mitchell’s Grammy Award-winning liner notes for ‘Love Has Many Faces’ reads longer than most magazine articles today. This seeming excess is a fitting companion to the album itself, a mammoth 53-song release across four acts. In replicating her propensity for subversive musical experiments, Mitchell manages to construct in writing “a frame that accompanies and merges into the work.” (Biron 2011, 2)
In this painstaking exposition, Mitchell makes a forceful but generous invitation for “today’s abbreviated minds” to work through their interpretive impairments, by paying attention to song transitions, instrumentation, lyrics, and imagery. She further describes her strategies, from cutting old songs into new ones to using sus chords as chords of inquiry. Eventually, she addresses the themes and feel of the respective acts directly. These demonstrate Mitchell’s desire for listeners to patiently work through the complexities informing her work, so as to “minimize any distortion that might flow from transferring between “modes of meaning”.” (Biron 2011, 4)
Her meandering anecdotes deepen insights into Mitchell’s creative process. She relates compelling stories – complete with dialogue – which reveal the role of spontaneity in the evolution of certain tracks, from Iron Eyes Cody’s overdub on I Am Lakota to a chance camaraderie that unexpectedly yielded her a sought-for tape of wolves. Such stories humanize her supporting acts – most evident when she pays tribute to the likes of Jaco and Wayne Shorter – and thus encourage deeper instrumental listening. Conversely, she also paints incompatible collaborators like Rod Steiger with thinly-veiled disdain, likely as a narrative tool to justify her bold musical approaches.
Such unabashed self-confidence spills into generalizations on the music scene. It can be effective, like her opening reference to racial segregation at the Grammys. It can also be unfair, like the deterministic notion that “Men need resolution.” This made me wonder if her refreshing candidness is a necessary defence within patriarchal music circles. Yet she reserves her most impassioned argument against popular music, bringing to mind Adorno and Horkheimer’s notion that “the style of the culture industry… is also the negation of style.” (2001, 47. In writing her valiant struggles, she raises hope that creativity remains possible, compelling one to listen and learn from her example.
Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. 2001. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” In Media and cultural studies: Keyworks , edited by Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, 41-72.
Biron, Dean Leonard. 2011. “Writing and Music: Album Liner Notes.” PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies 8, no. 1, 1-14.
Mitchell, Joni. 2014. “Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced.” Accessed April 26, 2017. http://jonimitchell.com/music/album.cfm?id=33.