It is akin to finding a beautiful wood floor beneath a pasture of bright orange carpet. That bright orange carpet probably looked amazing in its day until it didn't. I'm talking about coming upon these bare-bones, acoustic performances of Joni Mitchell's "The Three Great Stimulants" and "Dog Eat Dog," which I've been listening to all week. These come from 1985's Dog Eat Dog. I'd always thought this period marked a wrong turn in the life of her music. Wrong turns are to be expected, I suppose, when you're restless and hungry for new, when you don't want to rely on your old patterns--listen to what Joy Williams says about a writer's style being his doppelganger below. But this turn always struck me as more disappointing than the usual wrong turn, if only because it seemed to mark a point when the music seemed less self-attuned when she'd always struck me as being rigorously, strictly self-attuned. Too many hands were in the recorded performance--she, for one, has talked about the frustration of working with Thomas Dolby, who was given producer's credit for the album. The recorded performances seemed to have escaped her, and not in the good way. They held a wet finger out to the wind to feel what was out there, what was next, when the music had always been too confident for that kind of thing. They were heavy on the electronics, puzzling given the songs' anxieties about nuclear power and environmental waste. The gestures seemed too broad, without much of the nuance or texture we'd heard in Hejira or For the Roses or Don Juan's Reckless Daughter or even Wild Things Run Fast, which had just preceded it.
Or so I thought.
It is humbling to hear what might be the original versions of these songs. She is back. You can hear the commitment in her voice, you can hear vocal turns and music patterns that are entirely hers. Yes, she is probably chewing gum, and yes, she is a little pissed at the talkers in the audience ("you can't hear if you're not listening"--or something like that.) But this is music, hers and beyond hers all at once.