The eighties weren’t kind to Joni Mitchell, and the quintessential introspective singer-songwriter of the Sixties and Seventies disliked them right back. In the liner notes to this box set of her four albums released between 1982 and 1991, Mitchell writes, “To be in sync with the times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically.” Mitchell’s Achilles’ heel, a growing self-righteousness, begins to afflict her art. As she sings in “Man to Man,” from 1982’s Wild Things Run Fast, “I sure can be phony when I get scared.”
During this unkind epoch, Mitchell is sometimes justifiably terrified.But mostly she’s simply uneven. Wild is particularly inconsistent: “Chinese Cafe,” a vivid adolescent snapshot that builds on the beauty of her Seventies jazziness, abruptly segues into the tacky faux-metal guitars and stiff, Police-inspired rhythms of “Be Cool.” Dog Eat Dog employs synth pop’s Thomas Dolby to help with the sonic toys of 1985, and many fans consider it misguided — although, in hindsight, its knowing fakeness puts her in the company of techno commentator Laurie Anderson. Her 1988 album Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm retreats from Dog‘s angularity, replacing risk with celebrity: Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, even Billy Idol. Night Ride Home, from 1991, is smoother still; here the previous era’s excesses are stripped away to focus on Mitchell’s strengths: sophisticated guitar tunings and harmonics. On gentle remembrances such as “Come In From the Cold,” Mitchell comes home.